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Soil Health Improvements Yield 'Sweet' Rewards for First-Generation Farmers

Explore the benefits of soil health practices on a Louisiana sugarcane field.Story and Photos by Ron Nichols, USDA-NRCS Public Affairs Officer

He wasn’t born into farming, but Chris Andre has always wanted to be a farmer.

“I knew it was in my blood from the time I was five years old,” Andre says, recalling kindergarten memories of he and his best friend playing with toy tractors in the dirt.

As fate would have it, his childhood friend’s father worked for a sugar plantation. So through the years, the two tagged along with the boy’s father on weekends, pitching in, learning the practical aspects of sugarcane farming as they played.

Coincidentally, Andre’s passion for farming was also shared by his two brothers.

“We were either playing sports on the weekends or we were farming,” Andre says. “Those are the two things we did on the weekends. We always loved it and we have been doing it all of our lives.”

The three now farm 7,500 acres of sugarcane along with some rice and soybeans near Lafayette, Louisiana.

Brothers Chris and Mike, 33, are identical twins. Both bring unfettered energy and enthusiasm to farming – and to life. It’s the type of outlook that has helped them adapt and apply soil health principles in a unique cropping system, which few of their sugarcane-growing contemporaries have even attempted.

Because the brothers are first-generation farmers, Andre says they’re less constrained by convention or tradition. “One good thing about being a first-generation farmer is I’ve never had a boss since I was 15 years old,” Andre says. “I’ve always been my own boss.”

In 2011, Andre’s journey in soil health began after he bought a farm that he describes as his “baby.” With the help of USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Environmental Quality Incentives Program, the brothers began working to improve the farm’s land, using laser leveling and installing pipe drops to improve irrigation efficiency.

Unfortunately, Andre noticed that much of the soil he had spent so much time, money and energy moving, would just end up in the canal after rain events. “It made sense to me that since we just spent $500-$700 an acre fixing it, we should keep it there,” he said. “And the only way we could do that was with the residue management.”

In addition to reducing tillage and utilizing the ample sugar cane residue to reduce erosion, the Andres have added cover crops and increased diversity in their operation through the years.

“The Andre brothers have really embraced soil health,” NRCS State Agronomist Chris Coreil says.

“Not only are they trying to adopt some of the soil health principles that are used in other cropping systems in Louisiana, but they take it upon themselves to really understand the ‘why’ behind applying these principles,” Coreil says. “They’ve been doing a lot of research on their own, but sugar cane is only grown in a few states so they’re having to figure out how best to take those principles and apply them to sugarcane production. They’re thinking about soil health in everything they do.”

In particular, the Andre brothers are trying to address those times in the sugarcane cropping system that can be improved by changing agronomic practices. Coreil says they’re specifically targeting the fallow period in sugarcane production – that period of time between the last “ratoon” sugarcane harvest until the next sugarcane planting the following spring. (Ratooning is the practice of growing a crop from the root and plant stubbles of the previous sugarcane crop.) Typically, that leaves the soil bare for a year-and-a-half when it’s frequently cultivated for weed control.

“To keep the soil covered during that period of time, and to also build soil health, the Andre brothers are planting cover crops, including daikon radishes after the ratoon and during the fallow year,” Coreil says. “And they’re integrating soybeans into their rotation for additional diversity.”

That increased crop diversity has reduced pest problems and, over several ratoons, they’re noticing better soil structure, roots, and earthworm channels, all of which contribute to improved water infiltration.

The earthworm channels are a key indicator of improving soil health – but they’re rare in most sugarcane fields.

“Until I started working with Chris and Mike, I’d never seen an earthworm on a sugarcane field in my life,” Coreil says.

Since those days in kindergarten when he dreamed of being a farmer, Andre’s passion for farming has only grown. With the same unbridled energy and commitment he brings to his operation, Andre also looks to the future – thanks in large part to the soil health improvements on his farm.

But the first-generation farmer doesn’t discount traditional farming methods completely. He just keeps them in perspective.

“I’m the guy that says, ‘Hey it’s cool to get there that way, but let’s think about a more efficient better way to do it. Let’s look at the whole picture,’” he says. “It’s still good to go old school because you know it works,” Andre says, “but you can still improve on those old-school techniques – doing them better and more efficiently.”

Explore other soil health stories and related content here.