As sweet as they come…
That is exactly how I would describe my good friend, Megan Gravois from Louisiana and it is only icing on the cake that she comes from a sugar cane farm.
In fact Megan is a part of Blackberry Farms that is a 4th generation family farm owned and operated by her grandfather, father, uncles, and cousins in southeast Louisiana. Since 1959, they have grown to raise over 9,000 acres of sugar cane, soybeans, cattle, and crawfish.
At 84 years old, Megan’s grandfather has seen it all. The family farm got its start when all of the work was done using mules and hand labor. The first tractors he saw had iron wheels, but now they have advanced technology in combine harvesters which still use the same iron tracks for mobility. Per Megan, “beyond the family bond, the willingness to be progressive and advance our farming methods is likely what has allowed or family to not only continue to farm, but to grow. My grandfather trusted my dad and uncles to be the first to incorporate many new practices such as precision land grading to reduce erosion and run-off, utilizing hydraulic wagons and combine harvesters, and even working closely with a cane breeding program to develop new varieties and grow and sell seed cane.”
Megan went on to say “the fact of the matter is we are a simple family farm built on hard work and dedication. Our lives are made from dirty boots, sweat stained work uniforms, calloused hands with dirt under the nails, and farmers tans. Without that, the most advanced farming technology and largest of acreages would mean nothing. I think that’s why even at 84, my grandfather gets out of his air-conditioned tractor, and walks rows of cane in 100 degree weather. It’s also why his family walks beside him doing the same work.”
This is one of the things I love most about agriculture. It doesn’t matter if you live in Indiana like me or in Louisiana like Megan, our love for the land and working side by side with our families is why we do it each and every day. Now as you know, I come from a corn, soybean, wheat and pig farm so sugar cane completely intrigues me. Before I met Megan, I had never met a sugar cane farmer so I knew I wanted her to tell all of you about it as well.
Sugar cane is a member of the grass family. A stand of cane will produce substantial sugar yields for 3-5 years before it is time to plow the field out and re-plant. Blackberry Farms planting season runs from July to September and is the most labor intensive part of the growing season. The ground is prepared beginning in late spring by drawing up elevated rows; this is key because cane does not like to have wet “feet” and Louisiana averages 60+ inches of rain a year! Precision grading and drainage are a must. A nearly mature stand of seed cane is cut using an original harvester, removing the leafy green top and cutting the stalk at the base of the row. Open ends on the stalk are susceptible to bugs and disease, so newer technology that cuts the stalk into 6 inch billets is not effective. The harvester lays 2 rows of cane stalks on top of each other, allowing for easily collection and placement into mechanical planting wagons. A spiked metal drum spins, and distributes stalks of cane into newly opened rows. While this is far advanced from hand planting, it still requires a worker to walk each row to ensure 3-5 stalks of cane are laid evenly from headland to headland. Planting 20% of your land every year seems like an easy task until you walk 5 acres a day for 3 months in 100 degree temperatures. The rows are then covered and packed to assist in germination. New stalks of cane will begin to develop on each joint of the planted cane stalks. The new crop will lay dormant during the winter, be cut back to encourage new growth in the spring, and be harvested for the first time the following winter.
Immediately following the planting season, it’s time to harvest the other 80% of the land. Depending on droughts, floods, and even hurricanes, the 2 seasons can overlap. From September to January, 12 hours a day and 7 days a week, they cut cane. A combine harvester will cut the cane, 1 row at a time, into 6 inch billets. From the field, to a hydraulic wagon, and finally a trailer, the cane will be hauled to a sugar mill. Core samples are taken to provide yields and sugar content to the farmers. The cane billets are then fed into the mill where they are washed and ground to extract all the juice from the fibrous stalk. The sweet juice is heated which creates the crystalized raw sugar. The raw sugar can be stored in a warehouse until brought to a refinery to be packaged and shipped as table sugar.
How cool is that!?!
Megan also has a full-time job that keeps her quite active and also allows her to share her love of agriculture. When it comes to driving tractors or riding horses, she claims to just be a weekend warrior. Her “real 9-5″ is as an Assistant Extension Agent in 4-H Youth Development for the LSU AgCenter Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service in Ascension Parish. The technical side of what she does is youth programming to develop belonging, generosity, independence, and mastery in the areas of citizenship, healthy living, and science engineering and technology.
What she REALLY does is keep herself” up to date on all the latest dance crazes, Pinterest projects, and act as part-time mom for 1,400 kids.” “Our 4-H program is fostered through this ground level relationship and allows us to host camps, be ambassadors for agriculture, raise funds for service projects, cook, sew, show livestock, develop character, become public speakers, save the wetlands, grow a garden, and learn about healthy living. After all that, you know I’ll have plenty to post on Facebook and tweet a link to a video showing the youth development of our Ascension Parish 4-Hers! ”
Now if all of that was not enough to keep a girl busy, Megan also has a love of horses. Megan grew up with cats, rabbits, dogs, sheep, and cattle, but never horses. Several of her family members and friends raised horses, so she got to be around them often, but it was really never enough. She wanted horses from birth; just ask anyone!
At 15, her dad tricked her into thinking they were going look for a new show heifer, but she immediately declared “the farm we were at smelled like horses.” To her surprise, she now had her very own horse! High school was a busy time for Megan and her skills and abilities limited her to joy rides in the cane fields and lots of baths and brushing. Before heading to college, she agreed to give her horse to a family friend who promised she could have a foal, baby horse, whenever I was ready. 3 years later Megan visited the first foal born, and declared him hers! Per Megan, “I didn’t have the means or ability to raise a foal, but I somehow made it happen. With the exception of a cousin breaking my horse to a saddle, every skill and ability we perform is 100% mine. It’s kind of amazing to think of all the things we are doing now. No trainers, no lessons, no truck or even a trailer to start. Now, Spot and I travel all over (in our own truck and trailer!) sorting cattle, and running barrels and poles at different shows and rodeos. At 27, I’ve fulfilled my first and most desired dream.” Pretty amazing if you ask me and proof to never give up on your dreams! Hard telling what Megan will accomplish in the next 27 years of her life.
I asked Megan what was one thing she would want everyone to know about her and she said, “I think it’s important that people know that I might like a pony tail, t-shirt, good pair of boots, and to work on the farm, but don’t be surprised when I throw on a suit with heels and run a business meeting. ” (This is one of the many reasons I love her.)
Megan and I met for the first time over two years ago because of our shared loved of agriculture. I wanted to leave you today with Megan’s thoughts on her favorite part of being involved with agriculture. “My favorite part about being involved in agriculture is that I have something in common with every person on this planet, a need for agriculture, but I have a unique experience of living it. I feel privileged to be able to share that. You would think that a group of people who represent less than 2% of the population would feel isolated. I think it’s empowering. I have friends worldwide all because I had the luxury of growing up in the middle seat of a farm truck and driving tractors.”