Richard Fontenot, of R and N Farms, is pictured here standing against one of the tractors that used in the farming operation with his brother Neal. The Fontenot brothers have approximately 4,000 acres of farmland in the Mamou area where they grow the trinity of crawfish, rice, and soybeans. (Gazette photo by Tony Marks)
A unique trinity
Most people in South Louisiana know of two main trinities. The first of which is the Holy Trinity of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; and the second is onions, celery, and bell peppers. However, here in Evangeline Parish, there is a trinity that is unique to the area. This is the farming of crawfish, rice, and soybeans.
One of the many farmers in the parish that farms all three crops is Richard Fontenot. He, along with his brother Neal, operate R and N Farms on Louisiana Highway 10 between Ville Platte and Vidrine.
Richard explained the process of farming each of the crops in this unique trinity and also described the weather conditions as a main factor in the harvesting.
When it comes to crawfish, Richard said, “You have to plant a year ahead of time, and, depending on the rice rotation, we’ll put seed stack in May of the preceding year and use that as our seed stock for the following year.”
This means that live crawfish are put into the fields in May and are then harvested in the Fall. Richard said, “In October, we’ll flood the fields back up, and we’ll start harvesting and putting traps out. Different folks start at different times throughout the state. Our operation usually puts traps out in January and February, and we start fishing then.”
According to Richard, each crawfish producer has a different technique to harvesting the crop. “Basically we’re putting typically 10 to 12 traps per acre, and they’re typically baited and picked up every day,” he stated. “These traps are either run with a mechanical boat, or we’ll have some workers who actually walk the ponds and pick the traps up by hand. You just don’t quite get the productivity, and it takes more fishermen when you walk versus with a boat. We do a little of both.”
Each trap is baited depending on the water temperature. As Richard explained, “When the water temperature is cool, we’re using a cut bait which is typically some type of fish.” He added, “When the water increases to 65 degrees or better, we can switch to a dry bait which is an artificial bait that’s a kind of processed food material.”
Richard described what distinguishes crawfish production from the rest of the trinity. “One of the things with crawfish that’s kind of unique is the fact that you can’t really see production,” he expressed. “It’s hard to monitor and gauge where your production is going to be during the year versus a rice plant or a soybean plant that’s above ground.”
“Crawfish is all under the water,” he continued, “and it’s difficult to see if you have an abundant crop out there or not. You kind of flood it up, close your eyes, start checking traps about three or four months later, and hope they’re still there.”
At R and N Farms, the Fontenot brothers plant crawfish and rice in alternating years. As Richard said, “For instance the stuff that is in production for 2018 was seeded and set up in 2017. Some folks do continuous rice and crawfish each year. We do a monoculture one of crawfish season, then the following year is a rice season, and the following year is crawfish.”
When the fields are turned into rice ponds, Richard described that part of the process. “We’re mainly dry seeded,” he stated. “We’ll put seed in the drill, we’ll plant it in the ground, and we’ll monitor it throughout the year and do fertility programs based on different parts of the year and the timing of the rice. We keep it flooded probably 60-percent of its growing season, and then we’ll drain the water off prior to harvest. We start harvesting rice in July, and we’ll finish typically around Thanksgiving.”
Soybean production, according to Richard, is quite similar to that of rice. However, a main difference is the irrigation aspect. “We’ll plant typically in April or May, and we’ll try to harvest those typically in September or October of that year,” he said. “We do try to irrigate some, but they’re not real receptive to water. Too much water is a problem, and not enough is another problem.”
For Richard and Neal, farming has become a lifestyle, but weather is a big factor to this lifestyle. “Weather has a lot to do with what you can and can’t do throughout the year,” Richard stated. “We try to adjust accordingly, but, sometimes, Mother Nature takes it’s toll. We just have to make drastic changes.”
The crawfish harvest took a hit this year with the blasts of winter weather that gripped vast parts of the region. According to Richard, this affected the mobility of the crawfish. “I think it just put them in somewhat of a dormant state a little longer than other winters,” he said, “and we’re not getting the catch we typically do. But, we anticipate it increasing.”
The crawfish were also impacted by the flooding that occurred last year. Richard stated, “We had some fields where water actually overflowed out the levees, and crawfish swam out of the fields.”
The flooding further impacted last year’s rice and soybean yields. “We lost about 300 acres of beans that were planted,” said Richard. “They went under water for probably 21 days, and we lost that crop. We were able to go back in and replant some of those.”
He continued, “The rice crop was delayed probably another 20 or 30 days. We had quite a substantial yield loss on the first crop, and some additional loss on the second crop later in the season because the flooding delayed our harvest.”
This farming lifestyle for Richard and Neal began when they were children as their grandfather and father, Otis (deceased) and Bryan, were farmers. “Neil and I might have had a five or six-acre pond that we’d fish when we were younger and walk and check those traps,” Richard said. “It wasn’t commercialized as it is today, but that was back in the 1970s and 80s. Since then, we’ve increased acres over time as the markets have opened up and as we can supply more crawfish. Our production has increased, and we have substantially more acres than we had historically.”
That one five or six-acre crawfish pond has grown to approximately 4,000-acres in the Mamou area. As Richard concluded, “It was an opportunity that we were both presented with over time. We were both encouraged to get our education, and then, once we got our education, we were offered an opportunity to come back to the operations. We both enjoy what we do. We both have a passion for it, and I guess it’s a love for farming.”