Tough Tractors for Tough Conditions

The Lanie family makes a sweet crop out of the muddy mess that is sugar cane work. Their Massey Ferguson tractors help them do it dependably and efficiently.

By Jamie Cole | Photos By Jamie Cole and Marc Ward

Clayton Richard’s Massey Ferguson customers, the Lanie family, just spent a gray January day cutting through a field of brown sugar cane. As the general manager at U.S.A. Equipment in New Iberia, Louisiana, Richard knows this is no ordinary harvest. “It’s just a different world down here,” he says, with his quick, husky laugh.

Indeed, there’s likely nowhere else in North America where much of anything is being harvested in January. Adding to the differences: This late harvest is the after-effect of a Christmas freeze. “The crop is normally tall, straight and green,” Richard says. “During the harvest, we had a very hard freeze.” While the sugar content in the cane will be down, it will still be good for molasses, he says.

What hasn’t changed about cane harvest, and is the same all over: It’s messy, muddy, and tough on equipment. It may even be tougher here in the Louisiana bayou, where the moisture is good for the crop but hard on the gear. “The average row crop farmer will put an average of 300 hours per year on a tractor,” says Richard. “In this area, cane farmers normally double (that), if not more. And the conditions are much worse. If it works in this condition, it will work anywhere,” he says.

Andre Lanie, the fifth generation in this farm family, has spent the day pulling a cane wagon through the muck. “I am hands on,” he says about his work. “One hundred percent hands-on.” He oversees operations on Lanie Farms, which his father, Al, owns. And Andre has his own business, Double L Farms. With both businesses, his mother, Darla, keeps the books. While the family still uses soybeans as a cover crop, the cash crop is sugar cane, and has been since the early ’90s when they transitioned out of grain.

Acreage fluctuates, as the city of Lafayette grows outward towards Youngsville and “habitat pressure from wildlife and fisheries” makes growth difficult, says Andre. But the family has still expanded over the years, and farms more than 5,000 acres between Youngsville and the historic town of Franklin, about an hour down the road.

Andre says that while the old ways of hand cultivation are largely passed around here, cane farming is still time-intensive, and practically year-round. Cane starts not with seed but with stalks—already 3 to 4 feet high—on seed ground. They’re cut, laid down flat, and covered with soil. After three or four weeks, “You’ll have cane that sprouts from the eyes of all the stalks,” says Andre. Harvest follows, and the process starts again.

As with most crops, timing is everything, especially post-harvest. Hauling the cane out and getting it to the mill on time is crucial; the crop starts to rot almost as soon as it’s cut. “You will smell it,” Andre laughs. “It will stink.” That’s even more of an issue with this crop, damaged by freeze and then soured by an unusually hot January. And while this cutting is likely ending in molasses, the normal harvests of Lanie cane might go “all over the place,” Andre says, from Domino Sugar in New Orleans, all the way up to Hershey, Pennsylvania.

While weather is always a challenge, Andre says finding and keeping labor is the family’s toughest business task. But the two are related. The harvest windows are tighter here than in other cane-growing states, like Florida and Texas. That means the work is faster-paced. “They don’t harvest in these conditions,” says Andre. “If they catch an inch or two of rain, they will stay out (of) the field,” because they have more time to get the crop out, he says.

Meanwhile, the standards are high at Lanie Farms. “Working with my dad … Oh, Lord,” he says, with a big, giddy laugh. “He’s still the big boss.”

Al says the work ethic comes from his father, as he counts through the generations that set the standard. “My great-grandfather, grandfather, my daddy… We try to do quality work, not quantity,” says Al. “Do it right the first time, or don’t do it at all. We just work with the people we got!”

“We’d rather work 100 acres a day and do it right, all said and done, than work 500 acres a day and it ain’t to our liking,” says Andre, as Al nods in agreement.

Work conditions and demanding clientele require equipment that can stand up to those tests. “That goes back to the relationship I’ve had with the Lanies over the years,” says Richard. “They were looking for a different option, and I introduced them into the Massey Ferguson line.”

“We transferred from John Deere to Massey about a year or so ago,” says Andre. The first thing he noticed was build quality. “Better. Better quality. And better service. That’s why we switched.”

“We run a 7726, two 7724s, an 8737. I believe one is a 5S and (another) one is a 6713,” Andre continues. “The tractors come with all the power they need. Any tool we got, they pull it, and they don’t take a second look at it.

“My favorite has to be that 8737,” says Andre. “That has got to be the nicest tractor I’ve ever gotten in.” He runs a finish blade, grades fields and preps for planting as well with the 8737. “She’s got more horsepower. (And) the inside, I can set it to however I want it. And no one else will get in it because I don’t let anyone in my tractor,” he laughs.

Richard says the purchase decision is validated the more the family operates the tractors. Particularly noticeable is fuel savings, thanks to the tractors’ power management. “When you’re using a DTM (Dynamic Tractor Management) system, the fuel economy is unbelievable,” says Richard.

“When they move the wagon, they’ll probably stay as low as a thousand RPMs,” says Andre. “When we get in a John Deere, we almost got to have it wide open to even just move the cart to get it out the rows, when it’s full.

“We have one tractor that we’ll set in a DTM mode, and when you put it next to a John Deere, with the John Deere will have half a tank, and this one’s still full,” says Andre.

Adding the Massey Ferguson tractors to the fleet has so reduced fuel consumption that “last year, we would get a transport almost every week,” says Al. “This year about every two weeks we were getting a transport.”

“The cost per hour has been greatly reduced,” says Richard. “The simplicity of the tractor, the cost of ownership, the efficiency of the tractor, and the quality. That’s why you want to own a Massey,” he says.

Andre adds another item to that list of benefits. “I’ve been knowing Clayton for years, and he’s never let us down on these tractors,” he says. “He’s always been good on his word. We got great service because of them, and I don’t think we going to look back.”

Having spent the whole day in the cab with bayou mud sucking at the tires, he knows as well as anyone how demanding this work can be, and echoes Richard’s thoughts on the Massey Ferguson line: “If it can do this cane work, it can do anything.”