CARLISLE TO POINTE A LA HACHE (JESUIT BEND DETOUR)
We started the day in Belle Chasse, Louisiana one last time and took the ferry back over to the East Bank. It was a cold morning with temperatures in the 40s and a wind from the north. “Mammal hands” were the day’s fashion statement—socks pulled over the hands like mittens to keep warm. I ran the levee top for a while, but it wasn’t fit for running—no trail, just thick grass, so we found ourselves on the River Road. Thankfully there was not much traffic, but we did see a few pedestrians!
As we entered Pointe a la Hache, Louisiana, Tom ran past the detention center, the new courthouse and into the ferry landing. We had some time, so we drove down to the end of the east bank levee to Bohemia, Louisiana. From up on top of the levee here, we could look around and see the East Bank end of the world. A sherriff on patrol stopped to ask if we were okay, and we responded, “we’re just sightseeing.” In shorts on a 40 degree day!
Back at the ferry landing in Pointe a La Hache, we made a quick picnic lunch out of the cooler in the van—some leftovers from the past few nights. We boarded this last passage over the Great River on a rather rickety bridge, only a dollar to ride. Echoes of Albertine here on the boat as well, seeing a female deck hand at work. Unloaded on the West Bank, we drove a bit north to Jesuit Bend, Louisiana where the Saxon Becnel and Sons Citrus Nursery located to meet with Ricky Becnel.
We turned in to the nursery and Ricky walked out to meet us. He immediately began giving us the lay of the land, the 20 acre nursery site here just south of Belle Chasse, five generations in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana and his boys make six. The land reaches back to the Mississippi, and they’re pulling raw water from the river, treating it, and using it to disburse over the entire greenhouse operation.
Saxon Becnel has only been pumping river water for the last 20 years or so, when it became critical due to the costs of city water. This approach of utilizing a nearby fresh water resource has actually translated over to their newest installation in Orange, Texas—an even larger nursery operation, or “plan B” as Ricky refers to it. After Hurricane Katrina nearly devastated their nursery in Plaquemines, Ricky decided to diversify and invest in another market. In Orange, they’ve situated the new nursery along the Sabine River Authority Water Canal and arranged for the same permits there as in Plaquemines that allow them to pump the water for their plants.
As a long-running family business, Saxon Becnel & Sons has been creative in more ways than just where it sources its water and where it grows its plants. Run primarily by Ricky and his two sons, with his wife and other family members also involved, all the men have worked a second job at one time or another to keep their family’s going and see that the business grows. Ricky worked for 35 years as a barge inspector at the nearby refinery, and now his two boys have picked up that same trade. None of these Becnel men have a college education, but they know the land, they know the water, and they know the people that make their business successful.
What you’ll find at a Saxon Becnel & Sons nursery is trees. Avocado, lemon, grapefruit, orange, all kind of citrus variety. They don’t grow the fruit itself to send to market anymore because several years ago the orchard was struck with citrus canker, it became too risky to keep raising fruit that way. Now, when you go to Home Depot, Lowe’s, Walmart, Costco, Sam’s Club, or even your local independent nursery and walk into the “garden” section, you’ll likely stumble upon any number of Saxon Becnel & Sons’ citrus tree starters—small trees ready for you to plant in your back yard. Grow your own grapefruits, eat them. juice them, never buy another one again!
The citrus industry used to be huge here in Plaquemines, but according to Ricky, he was the young buck amongst the old guard. After Katrina, with so much devastation to orchards and nurseries, most of the older generation just didn’t even try to come back. Just a handful are still at it. “It’s a shame to say it,” said Ricky, “the fruit industry is a dying industry. Not only are the people getting very old and they’re just dying out, there was no younger people that wanted to follow in their parents’ footsteps….” It seems Ricky’s family is definitely the exception here.
Ricky went on to explain that it’s not just the family business model making things tough, “most importantly it’s just harder to grow things.” The insects are terrible, he explains, and the diseases, not to mention the rigamorale involved with growing everything inside. Today, if you want to be a certified citrus nursery, everything has to be “under screen”—and as Ricky says, “screen is a friendly word, like you would look at that screen up on the window and say that’s what they’re using, it’s ten times finer than that, that almost like a breath of air can’t even pass through it.”
The screen is holding back bacteria and insects from getting through on all sides. You also have a double door system with positive air pressure to protect where the trees are grown. Everything, all personnel, all the equipment is disinfected. They are using a liquified hand sanitizer for the personnel and then there’s a much more harsh detergent for the equipment disinfectant—tractors, sprayers, trailers, pruning sheers, they are all drenched off with this.
As Ricky paints this synthetic, sanitized picture of reality, he waxes, “so it is not like just the good old days—‘oh we just growing some trees in the back yard.’ It is high tech, and it is a lot of up keep. We have become engineers of what’s gonna work and what’s not gonna work.”
We talked to Ricky about “playing with alligators,” fishing for teal, about the back levee and the front levee and the “bowl” effect that has become of Plaquemines as a result of all these Army Corps of Engineers efforts. Like most residents of the community, Ricky is at home in his surroundings and doesn’t want to see things change or lost. A quick fix to him would be to raise the levees five feet higher. That would have saved his home and his nursery from the waters of Katrina. A longer term fix is to dredge the river sediment and dump it behind that back levee to build up land.
If you’ve been reading along, these are slightly differing views than some of our other voices, and this goes to illustrate the challenge that is here at our precious Gulf Coast. The very people who make their lives here, and have for decades and sometimes centuries, cannot find agreement on how to save themselves. But like Ricky thinks, there is not one way, there are many ways. And as another voice said, I’ll take every way we can get.
Tom and I left Ricky and the nursery at Jesuit Bend and made one last trip up to Belle Chasse for a “drive-thru” Daiquiri pit stop. Seems we can’t get enough of these while in Louisiana. Our day was not over, but I’ll leave the story here for now because the afternoon and evening spent with Alora and James Madere requires a serial publication seeing we spent so many hours in conversation. While James said again and again, “you don’t have enough days,” I think we made the most of the half day we did have. Stay tuned….