Jackie Judice and
Northside Planting LLC
Summary of Operation
• 3,300 acres sugar cane
• Follows 25 percent each
year with soybeans
Low sugar prices.
In 1993, sixth- and seventh-generation sugar cane
farmers Jackie Judice and his sons, Clint and
Chad, realized that if profits continued to fall
they were within five years of losing the family
farm. They started looking for new solutions to
old problems: real estate signs lining the highways
as cane farmers sold out to urban sprawl and sugar
yields not responding to increased inputs.
The New American Farmer: Profiles of Agricultural
By the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education
© 2003, Beltsville MD. Used by permission.
Pp. 100 to 102
For complete text or to order: www.sare.org/newfarmer
To contact SARE:
Phone (301) 504-6425
Fax (301) 504-5207
a Battered Dream: Chad and Jackie Judice
have cut fertilizer expenses by $40 an acre with
no reduction in sugar cane yield.
a systems approach six years ago, the Judices have improved
their soils, resulting in a 25-percent increase in yield and
a 20-percent drop in total input costs. Their work hasn’t
gone unnoticed. In 1999, their farm, Northside Planting, won
Sterling Sugar’s award for top sugar production in the
1,500-acre-and-up category. In 1998, it won the production
award in that size category for the entire state.
Farm failure was not an option for the Judices. “My
family’s been raising cane for 200 years, and I wasn’t
going to let it go down on my watch,” says Jackie.
Seagoing metaphors, determination and family loyalty come
naturally to Jackie, whose namesake, Jacques Judice, was a
shipbuilder in Alsace-Lorraine, France. In 1718, Jacques and
his brother, Louis, built a ship and sold passages on it to
finance their move to the New World. In 1800, the Judice family
began raising sugar cane west of the Atchafalaya Swamp, where
they have been ever since.
Today Jackie, Chad, and Clint are partners in Northside Planting.
Recently, Jackie’s wife Rochelle turned over the office
administration to daughter Brandy, 25. Brandy’s son,
Collin, pedals around the office on a toy tractor, anxious
for the day his legs are long enough to reach the pedals on
a real one.
Family is what farming is all about, according to Jackie.
“It’s not just a living, it’s our soul,”
he says. “My ancestors risked everything they had to
build that ship for our family; I’m determined to keep
The concept of a healthy family farm is important to Jackie.
While his 3,300-acre cane farm may seem larger than the typical
family farm, Jackie resists such labels.
“It troubles me when people put emphasis on size in
agriculture, as if a 3,300-acre farm is not a family farm,”
he says. “A 10-acre vegetable farm is large, but 500
acres is a small sugar cane farm. If a farm has been in a
family for generations and the day-to-day decisions are made
by family members, then it’s a family farm regardless
of size.” The farm employs and supports Jackie and Rochelle
— plus their three adult children.
Focal Point of Operation
Jackie started his search for solutions at a conference he
read about in ACRES USA. There, he met some Mennonite farmers
who talked about compost, calcium-magnesium ratios and others
things he’d never heard of. He asked questions, bought
books and brought consultants back to the farm.
“Right off, I found out our cane was starving for calcium,”
he says of the turning point in their farm practices. “Now
I know that a healthy ratio is about 70 percent calcium and
10-20 percent magnesium. Ours was 50-50 in some places. Calcium
should be king instead of a minor element.”
Treatment began with two tons of lime applied to every acre
that first year. The food-grade calcium, a by-product of sugar
refining, was free but cost $10 per ton to truck it from Chalmette,
making it a $40,000 investment. They now get calcium closer
to home, where it is a waste by-product of the New Iberia
water treatment plant.
Another major change was to plant soybeans on the fallow cane
land each year. Today, the mid-summer bean canopy on 25 percent
of Northside Planting looks natural, but it was not common
practice seven years ago when fallow cane land was cultivated
to a powder for weed control. At $4.50 a bushel, there isn’t
much profit, but the beans pay for themselves and help with
cash flow at cane planting time. After harvest, the bean vines
are plowed under for on-the-spot composting, reducing the
need for high rates of nitrogen that used to be applied every
The Judices changed still other practices after Jackie read
more books, such as Hands On Agronomy by Neal Kinsey.
“I found out that bottom plowing churns the anaerobic
soil zone into the aerobic zone and disturbs the microbial
life,” he says, counting the lessons on his fingers.
“Now we practice minimum tillage. I learned that potassium
chloride, our former source of potassium, is the same poison
used for lethal injections in humans. Now we use potassium
carbonate or potassium sulfate, which builds rather than destroys
microbial life. Our traditional phosphorus source was triple
super phosphate, which locks up with the soil after a short
time so plants can’t use it. We now use mono-ammonium
phosphate, which is more hospitable to soil life.”
Switching to new, longer-lived cane varieties allows a fourth
and fifth year cutting from a single planting, giving the
soil and the checkbook even more relief.
Economics and Profitability
Those investments have paid off in terms of soil health and
profitability. Before the transition, Northside Planting was
spending $70-80 per acre on fertilizer. This year, the Judices
reduced fertilizer expenses to $40 per acre to compensate
for depressed sugar prices. Yield did not drop, and Jackie
and his sons now plan to cut fertilizer applications by another
$10 per acre next year, for a farm-wide savings of $24,000.
Even with cost-cutting measures, yields have increased from
about 5,000 pounds of raw sugar per acre before the transition
to an average of 8,500 pounds per acre in 1999.
The investments matured just in time. A loophole in NAFTA
has allowed a Canadian company to import and extract sugar
from molasses arriving from Cuba and Mexico. The effect has
been a 25-percent drop in American sugar prices.
“It’s as if you worked for 20 years without a
raise, and then your boss tells you there will be a 25-percent
pay cut,” explains Jackie. “It was bad enough
that sugar prices stayed the same while the cost of diesel,
insurance and everything else was increasing. Now with the
cut, only the most efficient sugar cane farms will survive.”
Northside Planting has been a leader in cleaning up cane farmers’
reputations for heavy tillage, reliance on fertilizers and
pesticides, and burning of fields to remove leaves from harvested
cane. (Farmers are penalized if leaves are not removed from
stalks before the cane arrives at the mill for processing.)
The old method in Louisiana was to harvest the entire cane
plant, stack them into “heap” piles every few
rows and burn them to remove leaves before loading cane stalks
In 1995, the Judices were among the first Louisiana farmers
to adopt an Australian harvesting method that eliminates burning.
The cane is combined as eight-inch segments, and the leaves
are stripped right in the furrow for mulch. The mulch reduces
soil runoff, protects new cane shoots and prevents weed growth.
Now that the Australian practice is spreading, air will be
much cleaner over sugar cane communities.
Only occasionally, when it’s too wet to run their equipment
cost-effectively, the Judices burn the cane leaves in the
Other environmental benefits of Northside Planting’s
system include reduced erosion on the fallow fields now planted
with soybeans. Duckweed, a water purifier, grows naturally
in the borrow pits (craters left after earth was taken for
levee building along the Atchafalaya River) into which the
fields drain before flowing into the Atchafalaya Swamp. The
duckweed filters out any excess nutrients from the cane fields.
Using a SARE grant, Jackie helped develop a machine that precisely
applies smaller amounts of pesticide and reduces drift. For
these combined efforts he was awarded the 1996 Environmental
Leadership Award by the Iberia Parish Citizens Recycling and
Environmental Advisory Council.
Community and Quality of Life Benefits
Some things have not changed for the Judices. Just as the
farm is the soul of the family, the family is the heart of
the community, according to Jackie. Sometimes it’s difficult
to determine where family ends and community begins.
“A family farm gives life to the community,” says
Jackie. “Not just in the number of employees it hires
this year, but in the stability and continuity it brings.
The fathers of some of my current employees worked for my
father and their sons will work for my sons.”
That continuity affects more than working relationships. The
Judices plant watermelons, okra and sweet corn for family
and friends to harvest, but even with the specter of falling
sugar prices, they will not diversify by growing vegetables
“What do you think would happen to the smaller farms
around here that sell sweet corn if the Judices suddenly went
into that market?” Jackie explains with a shrug.
When a farm worker was killed in an auto accident, Jackie
organized a benefit for the widow. He transformed two hogs
into pork etoufee served with white beans, rice and smothered
potatoes. They raised more than $4,000 toward medical expenses
and provided an opportunity for the entire community to show
support for the family.
In May 1999, Jackie’s community commitment went a step
farther when he joined several other local businessmen to
found Community First, the area’s only locally owned
bank. The bank’s holdings topped $30 million on its
first anniversary, nearly doubling the projected $18 million
for the 12-month mark. Jackie considers the bank’s success
an indicator of how well it fills a need.
“It’s also a good example of how people will
support endeavors born in and of their community,” he
says. “Whether it’s a farm or a bank, there’s
an element of pride and trust that’s missing when people
who live in Chicago or somewhere just set up shop in your
The first piece of advice Jackie offers is to remember that
calcium is king. Conduct soil tests every year that include
the minor elements and CEC measurements.
Take advantage of inexpensive or free local waste products
for composting. Besides calcium from the water treatment plant,
Northside Planting has used duckweed, shrimp heads, manure
from the ag arena, bagasse (cellulose remaining after the
juice has been squeezed from cane) and boiler ash from sugar
mills. Jackie will be looking into the local zoo as a resource
and has even experimented with harvesting the water hyacinth
that clogs Bayou Teche.
No more major changes are planned at this time. Northside
Planting will continue building the soil with local amendments
and reducing inputs whenever possible. For now, it appears
that the changes already made on Jackie’s watch should
preserve the Judice cane-raising tradition for the next 200
--Photograph by Sandy Romero