Posts Tagged ‘Sugar’

Whatever the Weather

Farming is not for control freaks. You can do everything right, make all the best decisions, work every waking hour, and pray nonstop and the weather might still completely destroy your crop.

Many of our fellow farmers are experiencing what is being called the worst drought our nation has ever seen. There are crop failures across the midwest and, for a change, agriculture has entered the vocabulary of national news programs and the general public. Because we are such a large and diverse nation, Americans will not starve because of this drought, but they will probably notice the increase in the cost of their food supply.

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Downed Cane

The laws of Supply and Demand dictate that this drought and the resulting shortage of food harvested will increase the price of what food survives as demand for food will not decrease. Those who have managed to get proper hydration to their fields, whether via rain or irrigation, will see record-breaking commodity prices. Those who are watching their fields wither under the dry hot sun will only feel more heartbreak in the “could-have-been” prices they would have gotten. Those of us who were unable to plant crops like soybeans (because of the financial difficulties we saw early this year), are watching our neighbors’ fields with a twinge of envy.

But also with a grateful heart. For as much as we wish we had been able to plant those gorgeous soybeans like our neighbors, we know that there are those farmers and farm families without any crop this year. We still have our main crop, our sugarcane, and for that we are greatly thankful.

We also wish that we could share with the nation’s farmers something that we have gotten in abundance this summer: heavy and frequent rains. Yes, while the rest of the country is too dry to grow anything, we are too wet to get in the fields. We are constantly maintaining drainage while other farms are working on irrigation.

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The same field, with stalks taller than Wilson.

Water, whether too much or too little, is the number one influence on a successful crop. The heavy rains we have gotten of late have knocked down some of our cane, the ground too saturated to hold the heavy stalks up straight. It is both a blessing and a curse to have such a gorgeous and healthy crop this early. The taller and heavier the stalks of cane, the easier it is for wind and rain to knock it down.

We can still harvest down cane, and have done so after many tropical storms, hurricanes, and just regular thunder storms. It is more difficult to cut horizontal cane than vertical, but not impossible thanks to the modern combine harvester.

Planting, however, is a different story.

We have written before about how we plant entire stalks of cane in the ground in order to grow new ones. When cane goes down, it immediately begins to bend up again, reaching for sunlight. This causes curved stalks and curved stalks don’t lie in the trench properly to plant. They curve to the side or even straight up, just growing improperly.

Please don’t get us wrong, though. We love rain. We are thankful for every drop that comes our way. We just wish we could share a bit of it with the rest of the crew.

 

 

Into the Drains

When it rains, Wilson has to do what he lovingly calls “going into the drains.” This involves clearing out drainage ditches by hand with a shovel. He usually takes the young, strong farmhands and his own best shovel with him. We do have hands that will call in “sick” if they think the drains are in their immediate future.

When he comes in for lunch, he is drenched from either rain or sweat. “The Drains” involve such backbreaking manual labor that we actually pay the guys more to do that particular job. Most of them won’t return to work after lunch that day.

A couple of weeks ago, I had to attend a meeting and Wilson had our youngest two kids in his charge when he needed to go into the drains. Rather than find someone else to watch them so they could watch television or play video games on this rainy day, he directed them into their rubber boots and the whole group went out into the fields.

The pictures tell the story of what happened next.20120711-131329.jpg

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The 24/7 Workday

We have learned an important lesson in business ownership: there are no work hours. There are no days off. Even when Wilson isn’t “at work,” he is still working. The phone can ring and he’s back at work. Or we can drive by a farm and he wants to stop and check out their tractors. We cannot drive by his fields without him checking out the cane or the water or whatever.

He is always working.

When he’s not talking with someone about farming, he’s thinking about it. I’ve had to institute a “no farming in bed” policy, but have yet to be able to hold him to it.

While we worried about the farm before, we now obsess about it.

At lunch on Father’s Day, I was seated between Wilson and his dad. They started “farming” – talking about farming. As soon as I pointed this out to Wilson so he could attempt to stop it, his cousin – another sugarcane farmer – sat down across the table from us. So much for not farming on Sunday.

Walking out of church? “How the cane looking?”

Every single conversation with his dad? “What are you going to do about ____?”

Talking with my own sister? “Tell us some funny labor stories!”

Run into Wilson’s ex-father-in-law at a baseball game? “How’s the crop?”

Seriously.

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Now, for some good news. Wilson Judice Farms, Inc. purchased its very first brand new tractor. It was a very exciting day here on the farm.

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The Waiting Game

One lesson we have learned is that the world does not work on the same time schedule as a farmer.  They don’t get to work until 8, at least, and leave by 5, if even that late. They never work on Saturdays or Sundays or any day that might be perceived to be a holiday.

You cannot call an attorney at six in the morning with a question because they are not at work.  They are probably not even awake.

Don’t even think about getting anything done at the courthouse on a Friday evening.  It’s locked tighter than a drum and completely empty.

We have had to wait for lawyers and bankers and candlestick makers.  Well, not the candlestick makers but plenty of other people.  The legal process is incredibly slow, even though the attorneys frequently reminded us that the proceedings were expedited because everyone knows how badly we needed to be in the fields.

Add in Easter and people went on vacation.  Our main FSA guy – whom is one of my favorite people in this process – is off every other Friday with flex time.

Just getting signed copies of the approved motions allowing us to go back to work took weeks, as in multiple weeks, to go through.

It always seemed like people needed stuff from us immediately but then we had to hurry up and wait.  We spent a great deal of time waiting, watching the cane and the weeds grow taller.

The weed scientist in Wilson was dying to kill some weeds.  The cane farmer in him was dying to fertilize the cane before it grew too tall for the machine to properly spread the mixture.

The bookkeeper in me (and the common sense in him) held tightly to the reins.  We just could not spend nearly a hundred thousand dollars to fertilize a crop without a lease or a loan.

And so we waited.

The Parade of Lawyers

Neither of us has ever spent this much time or money in a court house or with lawyers and we have both been divorced!

We started with one lawyer:  Wilson’s sister.  She has traditionally done all of the farm’s legal work, mostly just leases.

Then the parent farm needed a bankruptcy lawyer, and actually hired a team of two great lawyers, each with his own specialty.  One is the fighter and in his element in the court room.  He is the big-picture guy who sees the whole forest at once.  The other is the details guy, the numbers man, the one who sees each individual tree.

Tally so far:  three lawyers.

The bank that held the farm’s last several farm loans and is the largest creditor in the case brought along their own lawyer.  (Note:  his firm has since been fired.  Hmmm)

Cue the Fourth Laywer.

When it came time to discuss the equipment lease between Frank Martin Farms and Wilson Judice Farms, the general consensus was that Wilson might need his own lawyer, one not at all biased towards any other party.  While his sister is incredible at compartmentalizing her business and personal lives, we were all so very emotionally invested in this process that even she thought we needed outside help, just to be prudent.

Thus, Lawyer #5.

The land that is owned by the sugar mill and the group of local families and was farmed by FMF will be farmed by WJF so they were an integral part of the Chapter 12 proceedings.  They hired one lawyer together and he also worked on their new leases with WJF.

Lawyer #6.

We have gone with Wilson’s sister to the Tax Assessor’s office to research land owners and exact property descriptions.  We have been in our parish FSA office to certify acres for WJF.  We have been to the Clerk of Court’s office to file all of the paperwork necessary for the loans.  All of these are in our parish courthouse.  Between the lawyers’ offices and the courthouse, I’m pretty sure we should be able to pick up a paycheck there on Friday.  We’ve done that much work there.

Pictures of “Progress”

The Old St. Mary Parish Courthouse

The “New” St. Mary Parish Courthouse

Who Works for Whom?

When we first began talking about splitting the farm in two, there was nearly a revolt among the employees. The guys began choosing sides, like kids on a playground.

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The wise words of a certain USDA employee that we met in Michigan came to mind: why not form a labor company? I’ve worked for contract and staffing companies before so I have a general idea of how they work, but I had a great deal of research to do before we could even consider it.

We then birthed yet another company: Judice Agricultural Services, LLC.

JAS is technically owned by Wilson’s farm, but will pretty much be my baby. It is a pass-through company, designed to make no profit. All of the employees will work for JAS, myself included. Our technical description is a farming labor contracting and bookkeeping company. I’m the bookkeeping portion.

JAS will pay all of the utilities for the farms and bill them out to the two other companies along with all of the labor expenses. I really think it will help keep things straight and a little less confusing. It will mean more work for me, but I hope it will work out.

So, as I like to tell the guys, everyone works for me! (Insert power trip here.)


Forming a Farm

Say that title out loud, quickly. Not easy, right!

We knew that the possibility of Wilson Judice Farms existed back in January so we created the corporation as a legal entity.

In March, when Wilson’s dad and cousin met with the attorney and filed for the Chapter 12, we began to set the wheels of this new company into motion. We opened a checking account and it was both thrilling and terrifying to see checks that say “Wilson Judice Farms, Inc.” in the top left corner. I can sign a business check? Crazy!

Wilson’s half of the farm consisted of nearly a dozen tracts of land, each with a different landowner. He began contacting those owners, getting Letters of Intent from them and preparing them for the leases that were to follow soon.

Of course, a monkey wrench was then thrown into the gears. Some of the details on those leases meant that Wilson would have to purchase the root stock of the cane on some of those tracts of land from Frank Martin Farms. Because we do not have that kind of money in savings and no lending institution will finance something that could die in the next freeze and then be useless, something had to change.

We swapped out land with the old farm.

Those Letters of Intent and the time spent contacting landowners all had to be undone. Well, not quite all of them. In the swap, he got to keep two of the tracts. The other two, which make up the majority of the land Wilson will farm, are owned by the sugar mill and a group of local families.

WJF will not be a stand-alone business. It just cannot happen that quickly. We’ve talked on this blog before about the amount of specialized and expensive equipment necessary to grow and harvest sugarcane. We will continue to work with FMF every single day. Part of their Chapter 12 plan is to lease all of their equipment to WJF, to use it all together.

The Farm Service Agency has a program where it loans $300,000 to new farmers and ranchers to invest in their agricultural future. They offer a very low interest rate for this one-time-only program. Wilson plans to use that money to buy a couple of tractors that would be useful to both farms. There is no need to duplicate the equipment since we will all be working so closely together and an infusion of new equipment will lower the repair costs for everyone.

With the equipment all figured out, that just left a million other details to plan and make work. One of the major questions was labor.

Current Update:

Yesterday was the first of the 2012 Corn Days. It was time to pick the first round of sweet corn from the garden. I managed to get a few pictures of Wilson in the corn patch before the rain sent me back inside.

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