With record flooding and relatively low commodity prices, 2016 has not been a good year for many Louisiana farmers. But year in and year out, John Earles Sr. and John Earles Jr., who grow sugarcane, rice and soybeans near Bunkie, have found ways to keep their ag operation thriving.
And 2016 was no exception.
“We took profits we earned a few years ago when commodity prices were good, and invested in diversifying our business,” says John Jr., known locally as Little John. “Vertical integration is our goal.”
Since then, the father-son team has continued to move forward by investing more deeply in the supply chain that serves their Triple E Farms, located in south-central Louisiana.
“Almost all of their expansion enhances their farming operation,” reports David Bergeron, vice president and manager of the Opelousas branch of Louisiana Land Bank, which has financed the family’s farmland since the 1970s.
Needs Spawn New Business Entities
The list of business entities the Earles family has created to vertically integrate the operation — thereby reducing risk — is extensive.
- Triple E Land Grading Co. – Diversification efforts began in 1993, when father and son started leveling and grading their land. Offering services to others through a side business enabled them to spread the cost of their high-end equipment.
- Bunkie Flying Service – Rice seed is planted by airplane, and both rice and sugarcane require aerial application of herbicides, pesticides and fungicides. After starting a flying service to meet their own needs, the family offered the service to neighbors as well.
- CENLA Fuels LLC – Soon they realized they could save money by purchasing wholesale fuel for their planes, semitrucks and other equipment. A fuel business that the family launched now sells fuel throughout the state.
- Earles Inc. – The family already dried its own rice in large, round galvanized steel bins for Triple E Farms, and began a commercial drying service for other producers.
- Cajun Sugar II – After the nearby Cajun Sugar Co. went out of business in 2015 due to a lack of cane supply, John Sr. and John Jr. partnered with other growers to purchase the mill, renaming it Cajun Sugar II. The move assured a reliable, affordable processing facility with the potential for additional income. The mill is expected to process 950,000 tons of sugar in 2016, almost double its 2015 volume. In addition, the mill now purchases fuel from CENLA Fuels for its fleet of semitrucks.
- Car washes – Growing sugarcane requires driving vehicles on muddy roads. In their most recent venture, the Earles family opened three tunnel-style express car washes.
“Each business carries its own weight,” says John Sr. “If we had a bad year on the farm, our car wash and flying businesses would carry us through.”
Cane Takes the Cake
The family’s history in Louisiana begins with John Sr.’s father, James G. Earles Jr., who moved from Indiana after World War II.
“Grandpa thought outside the box from the start,” says Little John. “He harvested clover seed, bagged it and sold it in New Orleans, and was the first to grow soybeans and rice in this area.”
By the time John Sr. joined his dad’s operation in 1971, the farm had grown to 1,200 acres. In 1990, they began growing sugarcane, taking advantage of soil that he claims “can grow anything,” even though it meant hauling cane 80 miles to the nearest mill.
“This is the northernmost place where you can grow cane in the world.”
– John Earles Jr.
“That was considered crazy in those early years,” Little John says. “This is the northernmost place where you can grow cane in the world. Now sugarcane is our biggest cash crop — our most durable and profitable.”
Louisiana is the nation’s second-largest sugarcane-producing state, behind Florida, and the third-largest rice producer, after California and Arkansas.
Sugarcane is labor-intensive and requires huge, specialized equipment. Seedlings must be planted between rows of mature cane before the mature plants are harvested, beginning in late September.
“But sugar is still the best game in town,” says John Sr.
Bunkie receives an average annual rainfall of about 60 inches. In 2016, however, 20 inches of rain fell in August alone — which is usually a fairly dry month. Wet ground set the soybean harvest back and reduced rice yields a bit, but the Earles family feels fortunate compared to other Louisiana farmers who were flooded out.
Water Where It’s Needed
Rain may be plentiful here, but it doesn’t always fall at the right time. Triple E Farms invests about $100,000 a year to improve irrigation systems, including maintaining wells and leveling ground.
In past years, they furrow-irrigated the fields, but now use surge methods by which the water supply is pulsed on and off in planned time periods, a practice that uses about 40 percent less water than furrow irrigation, Little John estimates. Underground pipelines move water from field to field, and a tailwater recovery system recaptures irrigation runoff for reuse.
“I’m the third generation in my family to work toward obtaining bayou water for irrigation,” says Little John. “Five years ago we succeeded in getting dredging going that allows us to obtain free-flowing water, gravity-fed out of the Red River and Bayou Boeuf.”
Besides rice and cane, the family also produces milo and crawfish. After the rice fields have dried out and the rice has been combined, about 400 acres of land are flooded so that crawfish can be raised here through the winter. These crustaceans feed on what remains of the rice plants, until late winter or early spring, when they are collected from traps by workers in flat-bottom boats.
The Earles family rotates soybeans with cane and rice. Herbicide used on their Roundup-ready beans carries over to the cane and rice crops that follow, thus reducing input costs. The beans also fix nitrogen into the soil and leave behind valuable organic matter.
The family also achieves cost savings through the latest precision technology.
“Five years ago no one around here did precision application,” Little John reports. “Now we do it on every acre, and it allows us to apply less fertilizer.”
It takes 12 full-time and seven part-time seasonal employees to keep the farm going. In August and September, with harvest in full swing, the farm’s seasonal workforce mushrooms to 25. Through it all, John Sr.’s wife, Vicky, handles secretarial tasks, bookkeeping, payroll and banking.
“We farm 12 months out of the year,” Little John says. “Harvest alone goes on for about five months.”
Dreams for the Future
The Earles family faces challenges just like other producers do. It’s more difficult to find labor these days, and weather seems to be more volatile. But their faith in their borrower-owned lending co-op, Louisiana Land Bank, remains rock-solid.
“The Land Bank has been there for us during good times and bad, over and over again,” says John Sr., a Louisiana Land Bank board member since 2010.
David Bergeron has watched the Earles’ agricultural operation grow and diversify since he joined the Land Bank staff in 2003.
“The Earles are good, hard-working customers,” says Bergeron, who farms milo and soybeans himself in his spare time. “They’ve been smart to reinvest their profits in diversification.”
Little John has three children — a daughter, 17, and boys ages 12 and 13. And while they don’t play significant roles on the farm yet, he says the family’s dream is to keep their ag operations growing for the next generation.
“We want to own more land, and we’ll continue to focus on vertical integration,” says Little John.
– Nancy Jorgensen