at a Glance
Jackie Judice and family
Northside Planting LLC
Summary of Operation
• 3,300 acres sugar cane
• Follows 25 percent each year
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
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
adopting 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
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 it afloat.”
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
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
“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 onto wagons.
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
Only occasionally, when it’s too wet to run their equipment
cost-effectively, the Judices burn the cane leaves in the field.
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
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
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 commercially.
“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 neighborhood.”
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 years.