Sugarcane Harvesting – by Ron J. Berard

Ron J BerardRon J. Berard is a photojournalist based in New York City. He has been photographing professionally since 1975. Until 1998 he specialized in sports photography but after moving to New York City that same year, began accepting feature story assignments. To date he has three books published (The Cajuns of Today, It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium, High Dynamic New York) and one pending on Cajun Musicians. He also staffed at three major newspapers in the 80s and 90s. The Dallas Times Herald,, The Los Angeles Times and The Tampa Tribune, where he was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 (along with reporter Nanette Holland) for an environmental story on The Gulf of Mexico. Berard has also won numerous awards from the NPPA. His work has also been published in TIME, Nat Geo, The New York Times Magazine, Sports Illustrated, Major League Baseball and Louisiana Life. Ron is a 1974 graduate of the University of Southwestern Louisiana (now U.L.L. Ragin Cajuns) where he received a BA in Architecture. Today he is a contributing photographer for The Metropolitan Opera House and Lincoln Center. Married with two grown children, he and his wife Michelle lives in Manhattan.
Sugarcane Harvesting

Troy Bergeron, a sugarcane farmer from Parks, LA, fans the flames as one of his sugarcane fields is set on fire to burn the old cane remnants. This will make room for a new planting season that will begin in about two weeks time.

I’ve always thought National Geographic was such a great photo magazine because it parked me in the middle of all sorts of open windows, giving me access to actually see events, cultures and traditions from around the globe. Images I never visualized or had seen before. In photojournalism today, that in itself is an accomplishment, pictures that are alien to the masses.

Sugarcane Harvesting

Fire is being set to entire field of already picked for harvest sugarcane. The fire is set before new cane bits are planted in about a month when the new season begins. This field is located in Parks, Louisiana.

This is where my sugarcane story comes in. I grew up in southwestern Louisiana (commonly known as “Cajun Country.”). Mardi Gras is one of our best known holidays, an event only celebrated by a few certain cultures in the USA and the world. New Orleans and Brazil’s Rio de Janeiro’s “carnival” celebrations are familiar to many who have seen and read about it through time. In our little corner of Louisiana we are steeped in tradition and our celebration of “Fat Tuesday” is like one most people have never seen before.

Sugarcane Harvesting

A ripe sugarcane stalk that is ready for harvesting. When I was a kid, we used to have our parents cut a 3-4 inch piece of the stalk and then we would chew on it and get that sugar fluid to just ooze into our mouths. This field is located just outside of Breaux Bridge, LA.

Sugarcane harvesting is another one of our cultural events that doesn’t resonate with but a few cajuns. Most of us who grew up in the deep south were able to learn rather quickly about the traditional farms and farming methods in the USA by reading the text and viewing the images enclosed in our geography or history textbooks. It gave you a dreamy and warm feeling to see nothing but wheat blowing in the wind of a huge farm in Iowa or corn in Nebraska. The barns were large and red! The farmers worked from sunup to sundown. Even today, I doubt today there were any school textbooks that taught or displayed sugarcane farming in southern Louisiana.

Sugarcane Harvesting

Sugarcane threshing (separating the stalks from the leaves then shooting the stalks into trailer bin.)

Although sugarcane acreage make up more than 78% of the total area of St. Martin Parish (where I was born and raised), it’s done rather quietly for 9-10 months out of the year. It’s when harvesting season begins in early September, things really pick up. The sugarcane stalks are cut from the fields then transported via tractor trailers to the two large refineries in the towns of St. Martinville and Breaux Bridge, LA. The refineries then process the cane stalks to sugar.  The beginning of harvesting season also coincides with the start of public and private schools in the area. What was normally a 15 minute bus ride from my home to school took sometimes 45 minutes because of tractor trailer gridlock. The entire months of September and October were a marathon of a 24-7 getting our cane to harvest by the more than 40 cane farmers in the parish. Sometimes cane stalks would fall off the trailers and in no time sugar cane was all over the roads. It became and horrible and dangerous mess after a rainfall, but it sure smelled nice! By November the harvesting was over and soon after another planting season would begin.

Sugarcane Harvesting

Travis Doucet is planting newly cut sugarcane stalks for next season’s crop.

Louisiana is blessed to have these incredible cultural events and traditions, unlike most of mainstream America. I hope to photograph more of these in the future and show it everywhere. Even though I’ve been a working photojournalist in NYC for the last 15 years, I’m still very much tied to my roots.

Sugarcane Harvesting

Portrait of sugarcane farm worker Travis Doucet.

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