Sugarcane farmer Dane Berard of Breaux Bridge runs his operation pretty much like the other 483 growers of the Sugar Belt. He and his partner, Glenn Thibodaux, have an investment in their sugarcane and soybean farm and have been successful for many years.
The 3090-acre farm is located partly in the Au Large area around Breaux Bridge High School and some of it is in Grand Bois east of Parks. They have variety of soil types but are losing their prime sandy soil to housing.
“It used to be we had 65 percent sandy and 35 percent black jack and heavy gumbo,” Dane said. “Now it’s the other way around.”
Dane’s father, Maurice, grew okra, pepper, sweet corn and cabbage farmer on nine acres to feed the family and seven acres to feed the livestock. Dane and his brothers were relied upon to pick vegetables and keep the fields clean.
“My dad is the smartest man I know and he only had a third grade education,” Dane said. “He fed nine kids and got us all through school.”
Dane started farming soybeans right after he graduated from Breaux Bridge High School in 1972. He got into sugarcane farming because the Breaux Bridge Sugar Mill was recruiting young farmers in the late 1970s. He partnered with Glenn Thibodeaux in 1980.
“They said they’d get us started if we were interested,” Berard said.” I was able to plant 154 acres of cane in 1980 and I kept a soybean/wheat rotation. When I got bigger, to about 600 acres of cane, I stopped beans. Later, my uncle and I got into a crop rotation. ”
Two of his brothers, Phil and Jeff, work with Dane and his daughter Kassi has been on the tractor now for two years. Blue, Dane’s son, also worked on the farm but Dane lost him to the higher wages of the oil field for now.
“If cane was still at 38 cents I’d be able to compete with oil field wages,” Dane said.
Dane’s farming credentials are solid. He and his partner Glenn are good sugarcane farmers and do everything by the book.
But if you visit with Dane in the fields you’ll notice he’s anything but conventional.
He wears his hair long, as long as he did when he was in high school in the 1970s. Of course, he has a good head of hair, not something many men in their 50s still have. He’s an apparent believer in “If you got it, flaunt it!”
He’s outspoken, and when he answers his mobile phone, he’s likely to address the caller as “Baby” or “Hey, My Boy.” He sometimes refers to himself in the third person.
And then there are the sunglasses. Dane’s sunglasses are anything but conventional. His choice of eyewear harkens back to the day of Elvis’ Las Vegas show.
“These are my Dolly Parton sunglasses,” he said, as if that explained it all.
“I also have some Loretta Lynns and Tammy Wynettes,” he continued. “Sometimes I find me some Aretha Franklins.”
There is a perfectly valid reason for the flamboyant sun shades.
“My wife would buy me some $125 Ray-Bans and I’d wear them, put them down and then forget where I put them. Then somebody would walk off with them. Then I bought some Loretta Lynns. Guess what? Nobody steals them.”
Then there’s the canaille factor. Dane is what the French speakers of Breaux Bridge would call “canaille” (pronounced ka-nye). In other words, he’s a bit of a rascal.
Being rascally is one thing, but Dane knows his farming and welcomes family into his operation. Kassi and Blue were driving the seed cane wagon as their father planted cane in the rows when they were just ten years old.
Now Kassi is hoping to make a career of farming. After receiving her degree in business marketing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette in 2007, she tried out oil field sales for a couple of years but her heart was on the farm.
“There’s nothing else I would want to do,” Kassi said. “To me, this isn’t work. I love farming.”
In addition to her tractor duties she does all the payroll and immigration work.
“Basically, I run the farm,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
Her father agrees.
“If I wouldn’t have her right now, well, I could put someone here and there on her tractor,” Berard said. “She does serious work in the field and serious work in the office.”
Kassi’s face appears on the “We’re harvesting. Please drive safely” billboards the American Sugar Cane League has installed around the Sugar Belt this year. Two jumbo billboards are located on Hwy. 90 between Lafayette and New Iberia and a third is on Hwy. 190 near Erwinville. Several junior billboards on placed on Hwys. 1, 20, 31, 182, 308 and 1035 in the St. Martinville, Jeanerette, Vacherie, Napoleonville and Thibodaux area.
“I’m so proud to be associated with the League’s safety campaign,” Kassi said. “I really love sugarcane farming and I’m grateful to have been the farmer featured on the billboards. It’s exciting.”
Boisterous, but deeply spiritual, Dane takes time on a daily basis to give thanks.
He says his farming partner is his second-best friend on the farm. So, his best friend is his wife?
“No, she’s my second-best friend at home,” he said. “My best friend is Jesus Christ.”
That’s how Dane Berard farms, upon a firm agricultural foundation and a solid spiritual bedrock.
(The above article first appeared in the November edition of the Sugar News e-newsletter. If you’d like to receive the Sugar News in your email box, visit www.LaCane.org).