95-year-old St. James sugar cane farmer has spent his life living off the land

Before he sat down for lunch, Cyril Waguespack Sr. asked one of his younger sons about the sugar cane harvest.

Waguespack is 95 and has a bad knee that forces him to rely on a walker. But he is still mentally spry. So he needs to know what’s happening in the fields.

Specifically, on this day, he needed to know how far the mechanical cane-cutters had gotten on Pike’s Peak, a section of their family farm.

“Charles, how much you got left on Pike’s Peak? Two more days?”

The estimate was spot on.

“You’d swear he’d been out there working with us,” Charles Waguespack said with a laugh as he sat down with his dad and siblings for a plate of spaghetti, sweet corn and salad in the dining room of his father’s house, which Cyril Sr. built almost entirely by himself in the 1960s, with pretty woodwork in every room and with double walls everywhere “for strength.”

The seven Waguespack children get together each week to have lunch with their daddy. The patriarch himself says grace.

“Thank you, Jesus, for all the gifts that you give me every day,” he said, his head bowed. “And thank you for all these kids. I love ’em all.”

He’s not necessarily the oldest person in St. James Parish, which straddles both sides of the Mississippi River about halfway between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. But locals say no one has a mind as sharp as Cyril Waguespack, who in the late 1930s used a $6,000 equipment-and-seed loan to plant a small rice field. It was the humble beginning of a family farm operation that now spans 3,000 acres.

Waguespack can tell you all about it in colorful detail, though these days his conversations are hampered a little by hearing loss. So his children stand in front of him and speak loudly when they have a question.

On occasion, he seems to hear just fine but simply differs with what’s being said.

“He’s so hard-headed, even when he hears, he doesn’t listen,” Charles said with a grin.

It took equal parts hardheadedness, good humor and ingenuity for Waguespack to start with nothing and build a farm of his own.

When his father took ill, he quit school after seventh grade and began hauling vegetables to the French Market in New Orleans. If all of the produce didn’t sell, he’d give the rest to nuns, he said, recalling turnips so big that he needed a new truck to haul them.

He bought cattle and figured out how to fence a neighbor’s huge cattle pasture by creating a Rube Goldberg-style post-digger and running barbed-wire spools three at a time from a wagon.

“I was a workaholic,” he said.

It probably also didn’t hurt that he and his wife, Uranie Bye, had seven children, who were put to work at an early age. The boys — Ronald, Cyril Jr., Charles and Carl — fed and milked the cows before school each day and can remember driving a tractor barefoot by age 5 or 6. When they got to the end of the row, someone would have to climb in, grab the steering wheel and turn the tractor around so they could plow the next furrow.

“We also planted 15 acres of okra, and it had to be picked every day,” their daddy said with a grin. “But we had some little kids to pick it.”

Those little okra pickers, the girls — now Jeanette Labat, Jackie Gravois and Phayne Braud — vividly recall getting home from school, changing clothes and heading to the field or the pecan grove. “I hated the okra,” Braud said with a grimace, remembering how the spines made her itch.

They later found out that their mother, who died in 1973, saved the pecan money to buy the Christmas presents they received each year — a surprise because the family was so poor, Labat said.

But even today, when it’s cane-cutting time, work can’t halt. Last week, the family’s baby brother, Carl Waguespack, 60, missed lunch so that he could haul a cane-cutter through the fields. The cane ran a few weeks behind schedule this season because a cool spring kept it from getting sugary on time. Then, a few weeks ago, a hard frost killed the plants, leaving them dry and brown.

The dead cane is fine during cold weather, said Cyril Waguespack, gesturing toward a nearby cane field, its dry stalks towering 8 feet into the air. “But if we get two or three days of hot weather, that cane can sour,” he said. “So they have to hurry up and get it out.” He feels the urgency even from the recliner where he spends much of his days now.

His sons and grandsons started cutting and hauling in September and didn’t plan to stop until Christmas. Their neighbors were doing the same thing. During that time, roads all around St. James have been filled with lumbering trucks hauling chopped bits of cane. Most people’s cars are covered with tiny curls of cane-leaf shuck blown from the fields and trucks.

Even before daylight, the family’s $300,000 cane harvesters start chopping. They don’t stop for the day until the Waguespacks reach their daily refinery quota of 1,200 tons — between 35 and 40 truckloads. Each day, the refineries email Charles Waguespack PDF charts that he goes through on his iPhone, checking to see the purity level of each field measured by the “theoretical recoverable sugar” per ton of cane.

It’s a world away from when Cyril Waguespack first started growing sugarcane in the 1940s. During harvest then, he used a cane knife to strip and cut the stalks by hand, then bundled them into a wagon for the trip to the refinery. During an entire day, he might fill one truck, he said. “And I was satisfied with what I did.”

In order to process the sugar, he and nine other men pooled their money in 1940 to build the St. James Sugar Co-Op, a sugar refinery that closed in 2007. He used his cattle as collateral to buy more land, the first such loan given by the bank in Vacherie. When people nominated him, he served on the bank board and the School Board.

To farm, he relied upon a small John Deere spike-wheel model that he bought secondhand for a couple of hundred dollars. “I counted last time I was out,” Waguespack said. “I think we have 25 tractors now.” His son Charles shook his head in the background at yet another accurate estimate.

When Waguespack got his first rice-seed loan, he put the tractor to work. “I plowed the ground,” he said. “After we plowed, we seeded. After we seeded, we had to pump the water.”

For that, he moved the tractor to the riverbank and used it to pump water from the Mississippi River. He used 12-inch pipe, also purchased secondhand, to siphon the water to and from the river. Then, when his neighbor asked him to build the big fence, he used his trusty tractor to power his rigged-up post-digger. Over the years, he innovated and tinkered on a dozen projects that would make an engineer proud, though he shrugs them off as mere self-sufficiency. “I did things myself,” he said.

Because that John Deere tractor had been so good to him, he never wanted to sell it. After lunch last week, his sons took him to see the once-green machine, which now sits rusted and unused on family property, next to an oil-tank farm that is expanding quickly because of trains bringing shale oil to St. James.

His son Ronald, who inherited his father’s mechanical ingenuity, is working in the piping industry now, along with Cyril Jr.

After asking a few questions about a massive new machine Ronald bought from India that makes cast iron into pipes, Waguespack wanted to see the cane fields. He was expansive during the drive, like a dignitary giving an official tour. “There’s the sugar mill,” he said, putting his hand out the Suburban’s window. “There’s our first shop. And our second. And our third — much bigger.”

His sons got out of the SUV to check on the crop and Waguespack stayed behind, studying everything around him. Three different cane cutters blew cane stalks into a wagon and leafy shuck into the air. “That’s an operation, there,” he said proudly.

His grandson Ross came to the car door, dressed in muddy boots and a blue cotton shirt that said “Waguespack Farms Inc.” on its lapel. As the two of them talked, Ross held his grandfather’s hand and looked at him fondly.

“You see how he holds hands with his Pawpaw?” Waguespack said, his voice wavering a little. “And he works so hard.”

Ross squeezed his Pawpaw’s hand and gave him a kiss.

“One thing I know,” he said, “I’ll never work as hard as he did.”