The dying art of growing

To succeed in this fast-changing, low-margin business, a fellow has to be nimble. That’s what one soybean farmer told Time magazine in 1978. With rising equipment and fuel costs, the Illinoisan was struggling to survive a weak economy and turn the business his father had run for decades into a sustainable, modern enterprise. There is a small, new generation of farmers harvesting soybeans and sugarcane not far from Baton Rouge that faces the same challenges this fall.

The first thing young farmers must realize, says Dwayne Viator, is they’re the minority. At 31, Viator runs Sugarland Acres Inc. in Youngsville near Lafayette, and data supports his position. According to a recent Los Angeles Times study, more than a quarter of all U.S. farmers are 65 or older, even though folks in that demographic make up only 3% of the total workforce. The Center for Rural Affairs, a nonprofit advocacy group, reports that farmers over 55 own more than 50% of the nation’s farmland. Looking ahead, half of all current farmers are likely to retire within the next decade, and by 2038 less than 5% of today’s farmers will still be active in the field.

Astronaut. Doctor. Football player. These are common dreams, but few children include “farmer” on a list of things they want to be when they grow up. And no twenty-something up and decides to move to the country and grow corn. Among the 154,000 members of the Louisiana Farm Bureau, bureau officials cannot name a single first-generation farmer. If you’re a local farmer in 2008, you were born one.

As a fourth-generation farmer, Viator’s earliest memories are of sunny days spent on a farm in Jeanerette, riding in his grandfather’s lap atop a tractor. “It’s bred into me,” Viator says. “If I stopped farming tomorrow, I would be lost.”

But Viator says more farm kids today are attending college, where they are tempted to leave the family trade behind. After playing middle linebacker for the Ragin’ Cajuns, Viator graduated from University of Louisiana-Lafayette in 2000 with a degree in agribusiness. Most of Viator’s classmates, however, opted out of farming in favor of sales jobs with chemical and agricultural equipment companies. “It’s not being passed on,” he laments.

And it is not just recent graduates saying farewell to the farm.

Kenny Self grows soybeans and sugarcane on 750 acres near Batchelor in Pointe Coupee Parish. He’s seen several of his peers sell their farmland and move to the construction or industrial sectors.

“They had an opportunity at the right time to get out, and they did and got a steady income for their families,” says the 34-year-old owner of Kenny W. Self Farms. “I understand that, because with farming today you really don’t know how much your next paycheck will be. So many (young farmers) leaving is a scary thought, because in order to keep up, fewer farmers will have to grow bigger and bigger.”

With the increasing cost of diesel—Self spends roughly $45,000 on fuel every month, while Viator spends $64,000—farming profit margins are shrinking. For his family to flourish, Kenny’s wife works as a registered nurse, something that never would have been necessary in his father’s time, he suggests. This occasionally means Self cares for his kids during the day. He takes his 5-year-old, Jacob, out on the tractor with him, but can’t help worrying what might happen if his son, and others like him, grows up to forge lives off the farm. He imagines multinational conglomerates gobbling up family farms and stitching them into million-acre tracts. He imagines these corporate overseers caring less about erosion, preservation and detail, in favor of cutting costs for the bottom line.

Squinting under his sweat-stained brow as he looks out over his cane fields like a hawk protecting its nest, Viator puts this livelihood of theirs in perspective. “Most people don’t know how hard American farmers work to provide healthy food,” he says. “If the family farm leaves the United States, we will be a nation in trouble.”

Though the hardworking values their fathers instilled in them are as traditional as sucking on a cane stalk, Self and Viator are not the farmers their fathers were, or the ones they remain. Both dads own significant acreage still and share workers with their sons.

For one, Wade Self and Wilson Viator hear a lot more Spanish on the farm than they’re used to. Using Homeland Security’s H-2A Temporary Agricultural Worker Program, Dwayne Viator and Kenny Self employ a handful of Mexican immigrants. “I can’t get anyone from around here to work,” Self says.

While communication with the immigrants is limited, Viator’s father Wilson—who also serves as mayor of Youngsville—has had to adjust to more frequent communication with his son. “Cell phones have made farming a 24-hour industry for the first time,” says Dwayne Viator. “Dad and I communicate constantly.”

When Self calls his father’s cell, it is often to talk him through programming the new GPS-equipped tractor to drive itself. Unimpressed with the benefits of a personal computer until recently, Wade Self, 62, made his first online purchase, a new planter, earlier this year. “Because of the way technology is advancing, he’s actually learned a few things from me,” says Kenny Self. “But I learned everything hands-on by watching over his shoulder. I don’t know if there’ll ever be an end to the knowledge I can gain from him.”

With elder statesmen like Wade Self and Wilson Viator, it’s difficult to blame the Boomers for so few of their children taking up the plough. Much of Generation X may pass on farming, but the Boomers still do their part. Anyone visiting the Red Stick Farmer’s Market on a Saturday morning can see that.

Eleven years ago Timothy Servat accompanied his mother Annabel to the market for the first time. He and his younger brother were the only children there. “Now you see a lot of kids helping out their parents, so the torch is being passed to the next generation. But it’s hard to say what’ll happen, because they’re so much younger than me.” Now a 26-year-old graduate student, Servat works every weekend for the family business, Le Potager (French for “kitchen garden”) in Walker. There he spends almost 48 hours straight harvesting eggs and fresh herbs and baking French bread, garlic cheese biscuits and coffee muffins. Though he’s an artist and a writer, Servat says he will gladly continue the family business when his mother, now 59, retires.

Meeting new people and feeding them at the farmer’s market is too important a connection for it to end with his mother’s generation, he says. “It’s my way of trying to do some good, I suppose,” Servat says.

Thirty-year-old Caston Harrell is another Gen X farmer and chef, working with his mother Judy Piker at Feliciana Delights in Clinton. Harrell worked in the restaurant business in Hammond for years before his mom broke a hip. He came in to help her temporarily, but the move triggered a flood of ideas for growing the business, and he stayed on. Now Harrell tends the mayhaw, muscadine, blueberry and fig crops at Piker Farms and sells his home-crafted desserts and Creole dishes in Baton Rouge.

Harrell grew up in the kitchen, just like Viator and Self grew up on the farm. To him, working the land, picking mayhaw or cooking etouffee never feels like a job. It feels like life. It’s an art form, Harrell says, and one that needs to be carefully preserved. “I’d love to pass it on to my children,” he says. “But that’s a long way off.”