SUGARLANDS - The untold story
By Ted Jackson 2017
His calloused hand pulled his baseball cap low against the Louisiana sun, then followed the cane down to where the stalk emerged from dirt. • Four generations of Landry blood taught Charles Landry to love this stubborn blackjack mud. A subtle whiff of sucrose on his fingertips told him it was time, and the harvester rumbled to life. Before nightfall on this day 13 years ago, Landry cut, stacked and hauled this crop to a mill 17 miles away where it was graded and exchanged for currency. • Cane is the lifeblood of parts of rural south Louisiana. But don’t let the business model deceive you. This is heritage as much as toil. This is family. To the Landrys, this is root of all that is sacred. This is sugar. • Or should I say, this was sugar. • In 2004 I was dispatched with writer John McQuaid to produce a series of stories for The Times-Picayune exploring the uncertain future of the Louisiana sugar cane industry, establishing its context within the world’s ever-changing sugar economy. • In the proposal to our Times-Picayune editors, McQuaid opened with this premise:
“Is American sugar a dying industry — the steel of the agricultural sector? The continued survival of sugar cane farmers in Louisiana and Florida, and of beet growers in the Midwest, depends on a complex, Soviet-style price support system run by the government, and that depends principally on blocking new sugar imports. The sugar industry has nurtured this system with lobbying and political money, wielding influence far out of proportion to its small size.”
So we began.
As a photojournalist, my mission was to put a human face on these facts and figures — to feature the people who lived and toiled far below the politics.
Our project never made it into the newspaper, for reasons I will explain. But the stories of the people I met are as relevant and inspiring as the day we started reporting more than a decade ago.
‘YOU TAKE SUGAR’
It was 2 a.m. when I first met Chuck Landry and his family at his father’s modest white-frame farmhouse near Bayou Goula, just south of Plaquemine in Iberville Parish.
The family patriarch, Charles Landry (I called him Mr. Charles), was rustling in the kitchen, pouring coffee for his two guests. “What do you take in your coffee?” he asked without turning around. “Nothing for me,” came the reply.
Landry stared down. His eyes could have blistered the linoleum off the floor. The birthmark on his forehead turned beet red.
“In this house,” he said, “you take sugar.”
With coffee mugs in hand, Landry, his three sons and one grandson settled on the back porch in a circle of wooden ladder back chairs, their daily ritual. The social greetings were dispatched quickly and the talk turned to daily news, politics and the work day ahead.
By the time the coffee pot was empty, the men had decided on a plan of action, divided up responsibilities and headed to the fields. In short order, the machines were rolling.
“We did this every morning for 45 years,” Chuck Landry said.
As they worked the fields, they knew that despite their long days, dedication and sacrifice, their ultimate success was partly connected to the government’s support system, which was beginning to flounder. Few Americans realize how much cheaper sugar and sugar products would be with imported sugar. In a true open market, American sugar producers like the Landrys would be unable to compete against the low prices of foreign competitors.
To understand the politics, I shadowed sugar lobbyist Jackie Theriot in Washington, D.C., as he tirelessly worked the Louisiana legislative delegation, as well as lawmakers in other sugar-producing states. As McQuaid wrote, “The sugar lobby may be Washington’s most effective. It almost always gets what it wants.”
To understand the competition, I sat through long interviews in elegant high-rise offices in Sao Paulo with Brazilian industry leaders and toured their research facilities. I was flown in a small plane to photograph sugar mills in areas so remote that the landing strip was a dirt patch in a cane field.
To comprehend the struggle, I visited sugar beet farms and processers in North Dakota. I rode in a tractor cab on a family farm near Foxhome, Minnesota, with 15-year-old Holly Berquist, long after dark as she “topped” sugar beets. She had spent her day in school, played in a volleyball game, came home, topped beets for hours and then rode in the truck with her mother to the pilers before coming home to chicken pot pie and homework before bed. Her mom and dad continued to harvest until 2 a.m., when their shift officially ended.
I stood by as a laid-off employee at the Louisiana Sugar Co-op begged to keep his job. “I’ll do anything,” he said. “I can take this plant apart and put it back together. I just bought a house.”
The manager said he would see what he could do.
I watched as an Iberia Sugar plant manager treated his laid-off workers to a pizza lunch, dubbed “the last supper” by the workers. He praised them for being the best employees ever. The mill was closing after 68 years in operation.
Despite their dedication and hard labor, the structure of the industry was failing. Foreign competition was wreaking havoc. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations’ 2013 data, the United States produced 27,906 thousand metric tons of sugar, 10th most in the world. By comparison, Brazil topped the world with 739,267 thousand metric tons.
It wasn’t so different in 2004. While exploring this production imbalance, McQuaid and I worked to understand the competitive edge associated with cheap Brazilian labor. In northeast Brazil, west of Recife, we found something more akin to slavery.
In the United States I was accustomed to seeing harvesters and tractors. In Brazil I found mostly workers toiling in the fields with cane knives and shin guards from dawn until after dusk for paltry pay. Members of the migrant workforce were separated from their families by hundreds of miles.
Worse yet, the labor structure routinely relied on the “company store” method of indentured labor, whereby sugar plantations trapped their migrant workers by selling them food, clothing, work equipment and medicines at highly inflated prices. The more they worked, the more they owed.
I photographed the labor in the fields all day. The work was brutal, monotonous and basically unchanged over the centuries. In some areas, men worked on hillsides, packing out the cane lashed to the backs of mules. Workers were paid by how much cane they cut — several tons per day for a typical wage of $6 — approximately 50 cents an hour, yet they owed much more than that to their bosses.
I stayed with the workers past sunset, hoping to catch a glimpse inside their living conditions. It was clear I would not be invited. Finally the workers were loaded onto buses that were little more than paint and rust.
I followed from a distance as they lumbered back to camp. I parked along the roadside and finally summoned the courage to walk to the squalid cinderblock bunkhouses. I tucked my camera under my arms and wandered inside.
No one there spoke English, but the workers welcomed me in. Along one wall, men huddled around open cooking fires. Hammocks stretched from wall to wall. There were no sanitation facilities and no running water. They bathed themselves and cooled the mules in the muddy creek down the hill.
I worked as quickly as I could and then slipped out as quietly as I had come. I was less than three miles down the dark, desolate road before headlights raced up from behind. I knew I couldn’t outrun them. Besides, where would I run? I decided to pull over and take my chances.
Three bodyguard-sized men angrily ordered me out of the car. They demanded my papers and screamed into my face, mostly in Portuguese, but with just enough English to let me know my trespassing would be dealt with. I pleaded ignorance. One of them made phone calls while the others looked over my car.
I’m not sure if they saw my photo gear. My precious digital cards were hidden apart from the cameras. They grew louder and more frustrated, but eventually reasoned that I’d learned my lesson. They ordered me to leave, then followed for a few miles before turning off.
Three years later, in 2007, the BBC reported that more than 1,100 workers were freed from slave-like labor at a sugar plantation near Ullanopolis in northern Brazil. In 2016, 340 Brazilian companies were issued fines for using modern-day slavery, and thousands of enslaved workers were released, according to reports published by Reuters.
INTERRUPTED BY KATRINA
With our reporting finished and our final edits concluding, The Times-Picayune editors began imagining titles and layouts. They scheduled the series to publish in mid-September 2005.
On Aug. 29 that year, Hurricane Katrina thrust our entire staff headlong into disaster coverage. Photographing people clinging to their rooftops quickly overshadowed any thoughts of Brazil, Bayou Goula, Washington, D.C., or the Dakotas.
McQuaid was reassigned to investigate the collapsed levee system. As disaster turned to recovery, and recovery to rebuilding, thoughts of resurrecting the sugar series felt irrelevant and insensitive in light of the horrors around us. My sugar images were filed away and soon forgotten. A year later, McQuaid left the paper for other opportunities.
About 11 months after the storm, as I was photographing another ravaged neighborhood, my cellphone rang. Chuck Landry’s younger sister, Lisa Francise, called to check on us. “How is New Orleans doing?” she asked. I told her the city was settling into a “new normal” of reconstruction.
Our conversation tracked the storm for a bit, but eventually turned to the sugar story and the possibility of publication. She was especially interested in the photos. She said that her dad, Charles, was feeling a bit betrayed since the story had never published. She had tried to explain that we all had “bigger concerns” to deal with. I apologized and promised to send a selection of photographs in the mail. She said her dad would understand and would be grateful for the photos.
‘GOD IS READY FOR ME’
As the years passed, sugar markets continued to struggle. Eventually, high equipment costs combined with cheap sugar imports from Mexico put a strain on profits for the Landrys and long hours away from family seemed like a drain with little reward. During the 2013 harvest season, the brothers all agreed it was time to let it go.
Chuck broke the news to his father. He was not happy. “I can’t believe you’re selling out,” he told his son. “I want to see you boys continue.” Chuck knew he would take it hard. The fields were his life.
As a final chapter, the family gathered in the field where Charles Landry first broke ground with a mule. Together, the family watched as the last stalks were cut and hauled away. A Champagne cork flew and a few balloons were released. Landry sugar cane was done. Cheap imported sugar had won.
“We sold the farm,” Chuck Landry said.
Charles, then 85, was facing a larger reality. Doctors had found a spot on his lung, which then spread to his lymph nodes. Charles was always a strong man, but even the strongest are eventually brought low by failing health.
Even as Charles Landry’s health deteriorated and the farm shut down, he and Chuck continued the 2 a.m. coffee ritual.
“That was my time with him,” Chuck said. “We were pretty tight. I’d wrap him up in a blanket to keep him warm. I’d go put him back in bed, and I’d go to work.”
Charles eventually grew tired of the doctors and the horrible way the treatments made him feel. With clear reasoning, he came to terms with death.
“I didn’t have to bury my wife,” he told Chuck. “I didn’t have to bury any of my seven children or my grandchildren. God is ready for me to go first, and I’m ready to go.”
Charles Gerald Landry Sr. passed away May 18, 2014, surrounded by his family.
As the family gathered to clear out the homestead, Chuck Landry later told me, they came across an envelope. Inside they found the stack of photos I had sent to the family in 2006. A phone number was scribbled on the outside. Lisa Francise picked up the phone. “I just wanted you to know that daddy died,” she told me.
As I listened to her voice, I sadly offered my condolences. My mind at once burst with vivid images of a strong Cajun family locked in a daily battle with nature and international treaties, both of which were totally out of their control.
As Lisa and I talked, I could once again smell that sweet morning coffee. I could smell the land. I remembered their toil, their risks, their worry, their sweat, their callouses, the pesky dirt and the smell of raw sugar in the fantastically archaic mills.
And in the three years since learning of Charles’ death, I’ve been filled with regrets. First, that McQuaid’s brilliant reporting was never published. And secondly, that my photographs honoring some of the hardest-working men and women I have ever seen — from North Dakota, through the heart of Acadiana and on to the soul-killing fields of Brazil — never saw the light of day.