Sugarcane farmer Charles Guidry of Erath knew that if he was going to get ahead, things would have to change. But as the old Serenity Prayer goes, one has to have the courage to change the things one can.
Guidry’s parents, Clarence Sr. and Maudry Lewis Guidry, had that courage and knew the best way to affect change for their family during the Civil Rights Era was through education.
Ironically, the younger Guidry used education to get away from the farm.
Farming in the 1950s, as the senior Guidry did, was very different from today. Modern farmers have climate-controlled cockpits in their tractors. Today’s farmers use global positioning technology to help apply just the right amount of inputs to their crops. And they have machines that can harvest more than 20 acres of cane a day.
That wasn’t the case when the elder Guidry was farming. Cotton was the cash crop back in 1940-50s Lafayette and Vermilion parishes. Sugarcane was a fill-in after the cotton harvest. Sweet potatoes was food crop.
And then there were the mules.
“My daddy plowed with a mule,” Guidry said. “And I plowed with a mule.”
The mules stayed on the farm all the way up to the early 1960s, just as Guidry was entering high school.
“My daddy only went up to the third grade and it was a big deal for me to go to school,” Guidry said. “I started at Herod High School in Vermilion and finished at Paul Breaux High in Lafayette. Cane was considered a small cash crop and you cut it by hand with a cane knife from top to bottom.”
Obviously, the farming life of the 1960s was a different kind of work and Guidry wanted no part of it.
“The thing in those times was to get out of the cotton field,” Guidry said. “And I didn’t think I was ever going to come back to farming, because I hated it. It was hard work in those times. The thing was to leave the farm for a better life and get educated. That was my goal.”
Guidry finished high school in 1964 and then his father sent him to Grambling State University where he earned an education degree. After graduation another part of the Serenity Prayer kicked in, the part about having the “serenity to accept things that cannot be changed.” Uncle Sam came calling. Guidry got drafted and served two years, including a tour in Vietnam.
“But after I got out of the Army, I went to Houston and got a job teaching,” Guidry said. “I qualified for the G.I. Bill which funded my studies at Texas Southern for my Master’s.”
He earned his Master’s in 1973, and then taught school in Houston and Lafayette for 14 years. The teacher’s salary at the time? $280 a month.
Education if a good thing and it gave Guidry a world view and experience greater than anything his father could have ever hoped to achieve. But $280 was not a lot of money to raise a family on in any system so he examined his father’s farming life.
“I recognized that my daddy was a sharecropper and I recognized his weakness, because every year, no matter what he did, he couldn’t stay on the landlord’s farm too long, he had to move,” Guidry explained. “There was a process of sharecroppers moving every year or every two years. I didn’t know if he would fall out with the landowner or what, no matter what he did, either he couldn’t satisfy the landowner or he couldn’t satisfy himself.
“That was one of his farming weaknesses and I thought maybe one day I could change that. The reason he moved was he didn’t own any land. We were sharecropping. That was a problem, we used to live in those old shop houses and they weren’t in good condition, but we made it. My goal was to change the way of life of farming and make enough to buy me some land.”
Guidry’s confidantes thought he had taken leave of his senses.
“My dad got a little sick but had been able to increase the farm. But I made a decision. Everybody thought I was crazy. ‘You got an education and you want to go back to farming?’ But I made a decision and my goal was to make more money. My intention was to gain and own property because I saw the weakness that my father had.”
Fast forward 34 years to 20105. Charles Guidry Farms now owns 960 acres of land and manages more than 3200 acres. His 45-year-old son, Jerome Christopher Guidry, and 37-year-old nephew, Brian Guidry, are partnered with him. His daughter, Cassandra, is in real estate. He and his wife, Wanda Faye, provide care for Anthony, their autistic child.
Guidry credits education, even though it took him away from the farm, for his and his family’s success.
“My father would try to make a good crop. He would make a good crop, but his resources were limited,” Guidry said. “He did the absolute best he could at that particular time with what he had.”
Guidry’s cousin and sister both have Ph.D. degrees, but Guidry will soon have the next best thing. This May, at the spring commencement ceremony at Grambling State University, Guidry will be awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Business degree by the school’s president.
Naturally, Guidry is proud of his accomplishment and he’s hopeful his young partners, Jerome and Brian, will maintain that pride after he’s gone.
“They’ve shown an interest in the farm,” he said. “I’m hopeful we can keep the legacy going. It’s how you get started and keep the tradition.”
This story was reposted from Louisiana-based agricultural and cultural blog LANote.org, a NoleVie content partner.