The Food Journal and Food, Nutrition & Science

An alliance between The Lempert Report and The Center for Food Integrity

Sugar Cane Farmer

Sugar Cane Farmer

From the Farmer's Tractor

August 28, 2011

Megan Gravois, 25, grows 3,000 acres of sugar cane, soybeans, Angus cattle, and crawfish. Her family-owned Blackberry Farms is located in the small town of Vacherie, Louisiana, where Gravois was born and raised. Gravois is a fourth generation farmer.

How did you get into sugar cane farming?

I grew up in rural St. James parish on the banks of the Mississippi River. My great grandfather began Blackberry Farms, and my grandfather, father, uncles, and several cousins have all called the family business home for over 64 years. Sugar cane farming is something that I was born into. I started "working" around the age of seven when I was finally big enough to drive the farm truck by myself from one loading spot to another as the rest of the family moved all of the tractors and harvesters.

How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?

In the last 10 years, Blackberry Farms has incorporated soil conservation practices, established a relationship with a research station, and incorporated GPS technologies into the practices. In working with a research station, several test plots have been planted in order to incorporate and develop new varieties of sugar cane. This has also allowed us to provide seed cane to other growers. Conservation and GPS practices have allowed us to more efficiently use the land in which we already farm and expand to new farmland when provided with the opportunity.

How will sugar cane farming evolve in the next five years?

Sugar cane farming has evolved over the last 50 years in terms of the way it was grown and harvested. It was once cut by hand, and now we use intricate equipment to harvest the crop. I believe the future of the sugar cane industry over the next five years will now revolve around international markets and alternative fuel sources. Sugar cane has a limited climate in which it can grow, and Brazil as a country is on the forefront of establishing infrastructures needed to meet alternative demands being considered for the crop. In addition, sugar cane is more labor intensive than most other large-scale row crops. This creates a strain on continued demand for labor. The planning stages for conquering these frontiers have taken place, and I hope that in five years the industry will have made substantial strides in solidifying potential solutions.

What is your greatest challenge as a sugar cane farmer?

This year it seems that the greatest challenge any farmer will face is Mother Nature. There is a great opportunity in a growing season to receive too much or too little of a combination of things that can hurt a commodity harvest. In addition to needing the right ingredients to successfully grow sugar cane, we face challenges in working with the government to ensure that we can responsibly produce a crop that meets consumer needs while still affording to feed our own families. These government issues can range anywhere from tilling practices to labor laws and even to working out import/export relationships with other countries.

How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?

Retailers want a safe and natural supply of sugar, which we are able to supply them with here in the United States. In addition to competition with alternative sugar substitutes, the industry is aiming to assist in fuel alternative growth. For these reasons, it is important to continue to utilize new technologies to remain efficient as well as supporting research for new varieties of sugar cane.

What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?

My grandfather has always believed in making a living off the land, and in order to do that it is important to conserve that land in which you work off of. For these reasons Blackberry Farms has been recognized for its conservation work in laser leveling, drainage control, soil sampling, and banded spraying.

Do you sell any of your products locally, and if so, what is the process?

Blackberry Farms provides local taste tests to anyone who visits the farm in the fall and wants to "chew" some cane. A percentage of our harvest goes to a mill that does offer raw sugar bagged at their mill, and we have aligned with other growers in southern Louisiana to form a grower oriented refinery. This has helped us to be aware of the full cycle of our product.

What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?

Sugar cane is a relatively unique crop, so most people are interested in learning about how it is grown and harvested. From a personal standpoint, I take pride in being a young farm woman. There are not many people in my generation, let alone females, that are involved in agriculture. I take pride in networking and educating people about all farming practices, especially such a family oriented one like Blackberry Farms.