'Queen Sugar' Is Not Just Show For Acadiana's Black Farmers


LAFAYETTE, La. (AP) — Eddie Lewis III had figured sugar cane farming could wait.

The son of a fifth-generation farmer, Lewis III was having too much fun as a stockbroker, with endless rounds of golf, skeet shooting and hunting trips.

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But then Lewis' father died. The elder Lewis worked the cane before the morning sun and continued when mosquitoes were biting his neck at night.

He died in the field. He was 49 years old.

"My dad had never been on vacation in his life," said Lewis III, a business graduate from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. "He never learned how to swim. He had never been on a plane before.'

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"He was getting the land ready to plant that day. He caught a heart attack on his tractor."

Seven years later, Lewis III and his brothers, Jordan and Hunter, work more than 3,000 acres of sugar cane in Lafayette, Iberia and Vermilion parishes.

Their lives as African American sugar cane farmers are the backdrop for "Queen Sugar," a popular TV series on the Oprah Winfrey Network, also known as OWN.

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Based on a novel by Natalie Baszile, the fictional drama is more soap opera than agriculture. The series follows the Bordelon family as they deal with inheritance, land ownership, divorce, illness, farming politics and contemporary social issues.

"Queen Sugar," which is filmed around New Orleans and a soundstage in LaPlace, started its third season May 28.

The series has brought more attention to black sugar cane farmers, a nearly invisible population on America's landscape.

Overall, black farmers represent just 1.4 percent of the nation's 3.2 million farmers, according to the latest census data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But those 44,629 farmers represent a 9-percent increase from 2007.

The Lafayette area has some of the most successful black sugar cane farmers with Lewis III of Youngsville, Charles Guidry in Erath, the Vallot family in Abbeville and Willis Provost of New Iberia.

When his father died seven years ago, Lewis III returned to the family farm, which produces 65,000 tons of cane and 20 million pounds of sugar a year.

Lewis is pleased with the attention "Queen Sugar" has brought to his profession, which goes back to the late 1800s in his family.

"I watch that show and it's spot on," said Lewis, 35. "My father died in the field on the headland during planting season. Me and my brothers took over. We're all doing something different.

"There's drama with the mills and the landowners. We have a fluctuation of cash flow and have to hang in there. They show it pretty well."

Charles Guidry admits he's not a huge fan of "Queen Sugar."

Guidry is too busy building a multi-million dollar operation from his 4,100 acres in Lafayette and Vermilion parishes.

He's part owner of a sugar mill and white sugar refinery. With an honorary doctorate from Grambling State and Bronze Star from military service in Vietnam, Guidry sits on the board of directors of the American Sugar Cane League.

Earlier this year, Guidry and family members were featured in the Washington, DC edition of the Wall Street Journal in advertising aimed at Congress and the Farm Bill.

Guidry's life started to change in 1978, when he left a $280-a-month teaching job to return to the family farm. He now owns a farm that uses 15, 18-wheelers to haul 45 loads of cane a day during grinding time.

When he's not farming, Guidry and his wife, Wanda, take an occasional drive in their $500,000 Rolls-Royce Ghost, which he purchased from a Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity brother in Maryland. He's set up two, endowed scholarships for agriculture majors at Grambling.

"I was concerned about making money and owning land," said Guidry, who turns 74 in July. "That's the whole problem with the black farmer — he doesn't own any land. You can't keep working the land and paying (the owner) a sixth of their share, which is more than the land note."

"You have to own some land. If you rent from people, they can get mad at you and kick you off. My goal was to own a third of the land that I work. It's been working out good."

Guidry encourages black children to participate in 4H to learn the business of agriculture.

"None of us want to go back into farming anymore. It was a trend years ago, but that's where the money is at.

"You don't have to be a basketball or football player. There's other ways of making money."

Since graduating high school in 1961, Willis Provost has used sugar came farming to provide comfortable livings for his children, sons-in-law and grandchildren.

Several are in the family business that works 4,000 acres in Iberia, Vermilion and Lafayette parishes.

But Provost says cane farming "used to be better than it is right now." Expenses have increased as his production as grown.

Tractor mechanics can charge $130 an hour for repairs. A new tractor costs $200,000 or more.

Like many farmers, Provost has had to rely on immigrants with employment-based visas to harvest his crops. American labor has proven too unreliable.

"The locals have too much problems," said Provost, 74. "They get to smoking dope in the field, drinking, doing whatever they shouldn't be doing. But the foreign labor, they get paid by so much an acre. They hustle. They want to work hours on top of hours.

"I have no problems watching them. But if I hire local labor by the hour, we have to stay right there on them all the time."

After open-heart surgery and prostate cancer treatment in recent years, Provost has left most of the day-to-day work to family.

He and his wife, Linda, spend most weekends zydeco dancing and following their favorite band, Geno Delafose and French Rockin' Boogie.

After six decades in farming, Provost figures sugar cane has given him a sweet life.

"How many more years I have to go? It won't be many. But then retire and do what?

"Just put me with Geno and put me away from whatever else I used to do. As far as riding a plane? No. I'll never ride in a plane again.

"On a weekend, I can go to four, five or six different dances. But that's what I'm living for right now. I love it."

– by Herman Fuselier, AP reporter

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