Johnny Hensgens knows from rice. He grew up on his family’s rice farm, eating duck and goose gumbos made from birds hunted in the rice fields. He operated his own rice farm as a young adult. And since 1995, he has been Director of Farming Operations at a large, self-sustaining rice farm just outside of Lake Charles, the town of his birth. With a title like Director of Farming Operations, and considering the massive outfit that is The Powell Group (the parent company that owns Farmers Rice Milling), you might expect Mr. Hensgens to be pushing papers, or maybe delivering instructions to his minions, on a random Tuesday morning. Yet, he calmly fielded several cell phone calls during our Tuesday morning interview, each time telling the caller that he would “be there soon”; it turned out that “there” was in the rice fields, perched behind the steering apparatus of a combine, harvesting a late-season crop as stormy skies encroached from all sides. He looked, and felt, perfectly at home.
NOTE: What follows is a portion of the original
interview that has been edited for length. To download the entire
transcript in PDF form, please click here.
Subject: Johnny Hensgens
Date: September 11, 2007
Location: Lake Charles, LA
Interviewer & Photographer: Sara Roahen
Sara Roahen: This is Sara Roahen for the Southern Foodways Alliance. It’s Tuesday, September 11, 2007. I’m in Lake Charles, Louisiana with Mr. Johnny Hensgens. And if I could get you to say your name and your birth date, we’ll get started.
Johnny Hensgens: It’s Johnny Hensgens, and birthday is December 28, 1948.
So you don’t pronounce the ‘s’ at the end?
Really I guess not. [Laughs]
Okay. And can you just start—explain to me where we are, and the different businesses that are involved here in this spot?
We have a—this company is owned by an individual; it’s pretty well totally integrated. We—we actually produce the rice; we process the rice; we process the hulls that come off the rice and make electricity with it. So we’re pretty much totally integrated in our—in this—in our farm. The farm has approximately 10,000 acres of farmland. We produce about 2,000 to 2,500 acres a year in rice on the farm. We have—plant soybeans; we plant some wheat and mostly—most—a lot of the property is all pasture with cattle. We have cattle on probably 70-percent of the property. It’s in a rotation with the rice. Whenever the rice is not planted, we put cattle on it.
So you’re a farm and a mill that sustains itself—that produces its own electricity to do the work of milling. Is that right?
Right. We produce electricity for the mill, and plus we actually sell electricity on the grid.
Can you describe to me a little bit about how you generate your own electricity—what you use for that?
They burn the rice hulls in a turbine co-generation plant. The rice hulls that are taken when the rice is brought in and the hulls are removed. The hulls are removed and they’re—they’re ground to a fine powder, and that’s what’s sent over to the electric plant where they burn it to produce electricity.
Is that process of producing electricity from the hulls—is that very common here in Louisiana or elsewhere?
No, I think we’re the only plant in Louisiana that—that produces electricity, and we buy hulls from other mills in the area to—rather than them having to dispose of it in a landfill, their hulls in a landfill, they bring them here and they’re—they’re burnt here.
And why does everybody—why doesn’t everybody do that? Is it an expensive endeavor in the beginning?
It’s expensive in the beginning and it hasn’t been—when the plant was built they were expecting electric prices, I think, to go up more than they have, and it hasn’t been a—a very profitable venture. The—there’s more income to be received from the ash, from the burning of the hulls, than there is from the—from the production of electricity. The ash is used in several different industries. We’re using it in the steel industry as an insulator at the steel mills, and then it—lately they’ve gotten into the filtration business, using it to filter for different processes and different needs. A hundred-percent of the ash is sold. There’s no—when—when the rice comes in here there’s nothing that leaves, that’s not being used for something.
It’s kind of like we were talking about before—when you use everything from the tail to the snout of the pig.
That’s right. The same thing with the—with the boudin and the hogshead cheese, and the—and the rice industry is—I mean this plant uses every bit of the rice. There’s no waste.
And how long have you been involved here?
I came to work here in 1995. Before 1995 I was farming on my own and the opportunity came.
What is your title here exactly?
Director of Farming Operations.
What did you farm when you were farming on your own?
The same thing. I had the cattle, the rice, and soy beans, and a little bit of wheat.
Can you sort of start at the beginning of the process of planting rice and take me, you know, generally…the different steps until you get to the finished product?
We’re—we start—basically this time of year we’ll go in, and stuff that was fallow that had pasture for cattle, we’ll plow it starting now and get it prepared and have it—try to have it prepared good enough to where, when we go through the winter, it will be easy to plant in the spring of the following year. Now we’ve—we’ve changed our practice. We—we do some minimum till planting where we actually plow it now and don’t do anything except plant it in the—in the spring. We’ll just run a drill and plant it and do no other field work, which is you know something that’s changed in the last, I guess, five to ten years. But it’s really—it seems to work real well. It saves on fuel, it saves on time, and we—very few acres do we actually work more than one time in the spring. We may run one—one pass with a field cultivator and then drill it, or one pass with the field cultivator and flood and plant with a—water-seed it with an airplane. And that’s dependent on the type of soil. We have some light soils that we can drill with a—with the tractor, and we have heavy soils where it—we can't drill; we have to water-seed.
Can you tell me what you mean by drill?
Drill is a mechanical, just a mechanical piece of equipment pulled behind a tractor that actually inserts the seed into the—into the ground. And it—we try to put it in the moisture where it’ll—it’ll come up on its own from having enough moisture.
And—and so the alternative is, if the ground is too heavy, then you—you flood the field and just sprinkle the seed into the water?
Right, sprinkle the seed in the water. We’ll sprinkle dry seed into the water, let it sit approximately 48-hours to start the germination process, and then remove the water. And sometimes you have to refill it, put water back on to keep the germination process going to get the roots established and stuff, but most—most of the time you can just plant it and cut the water off in 48-hours, and it will peg its roots and—and come along from that point.
Where does the water come from that you use to flood the fields?
We have both surface water, which is out of the bayous or the drainage ditches, and we have groundwater, which is pumped out of the ground.
Once the rice is planted—you said that you do that in the spring?
We—we usually start mid-March. March 15 is probably the beginning time, and the optimum time is March 15th to probably May 15th. Once you get to May 15th you’re getting to a point where the—the yield will drop significantly ‘cause it’s later; more heat from you know the summertime…the earlier you get it, the better yield you make. The harvest begins on the first planted rice, and the reason we spread it out also is because to spread out the harvest. We couldn’t harvest it all at one time, so we have to plant it at different stages to be able to harvest at different stages. We don’t want to—you don’t want the crop to remain in the field when it’s ready to harvest because it deteriorates in the field. So we—we usually start about the 25th of July, and it goes through the 15th to the 25th of August. This year we’ve had so much rain for such an extended time we’re still actually harvesting some—quite a bit of rice in this area. And it was both ‘cause it was planted late, because of the cold temperatures we had in the—around Easter time; plus the—all the rain.
So I know when I’m driving, you know along the highways in Louisiana, the rice plant—I know what that looks like. It’s sort of a…grassy green plant. Where is the actual rice on that plant?
Well you’ll—you probably just didn’t notice at the time. In other words, it will go from probably 80 to 90—85 to 90 days it will be in the grassy stage where it would like just a plant. At 90 days after planting it’ll—it’ll produce a head, a seed head that—I may be able to find some for you to see—where it actually turns from green to straw colored yellow. You know it actually looks like a—a wheat plant after it—the rice is seeded out. It’ll come—the head will come out, the—the pinnacles on the head, which are the individual grains, all flower and it’ll—it’s pretty much self-pollinating. In other words, one plant will pretty much pollinate itself. So it’ll go—from the heading out stage it’ll go to the fill, which is the dough stage, where it actually goes from a blank seed to filling in the seed. It’ll go to dough, and then it’ll go to a hard stage when you—when you harvest when the moisture comes out.
And how many of those, I guess, grains will be on a plant?
On a—on a head, which is—there’s multiple heads on a plant and that varies with the variety. You may have—one seed will produce maybe 10 shoots, and the 10 shoots, each one of them will have a—a seed head in which is—and on the seed head there’s probably 135 to 150 kernels per seed head.
And so at any point during the—the growing period, do you flood the fields?
Yeah, the fields are flooded—again, it depends on the type of system you use, If you’re using…the dry seeded, you’ll leave it approximately six weeks from the time of planting to when you put the water on. Once you put the water on, it’s on 24/7 until it’s cut off for harvest. It’s cut off about 14 days prior to harvest, and the water is mainly on there just as a—a preventative for grass. In other words, when you put soil in an aquatic stage there’s—no grass will grow. So you plant—put the water on it up until it’s time for the—at the heading. At the heading time it needs the water to fill the—the seed, but prior to that the water—the only use of the water is to keep the field clean and keep it free of grass.
And a byproduct of that, we learned earlier this morning, is that it becomes a nice place for birds to hang out.
Right, and the birds are there year-round. In other words, when we plant we have birds. When we’re growing throughout the year we’ll have birds, but the majority of the birds come in after harvest when we have fields flooded, like during the wintertime. A lot, especially the migratory birds, will come in after harvest.
Is there a certain kind of bird that’s prominent in a rice field?
Yeah, I guess you have the egrets; you have the, I don’t know what the scientific names—we have names for them: groesbecks and beckcraws, and we have black mallards. Ducks winter over this area.
How do you harvest? Is it all mechanized?
Yes, it’s all mechanized. We have self-propelled combines that harvest the crop. We have carts that haul it from the combine to the trucks. The trucks then take it from the field to the rice dryers, and—and it can be either a commercial dryer, or the majority of the people in this area have their own farm storage and their own dryers. They dry it themselves, and that way they can hold it and market as the market dictates, you know, because usually at harvest is the lowest price. So people try to hold it as long as they—you can, to try to get the better price.
Okay, and then…the hulls get taken off?
Right. Then you—then you sell it. The farmer will sell it to a processor, which will either be a mill that’ll take it in and process it, remove the hulls, remove the bran, and bag the rice, or it will be sold as bulk rough rice, which in the past few years has—has really—we’ve sold quite a bit of that to Mexico and some of the Caribbean nations.
And do you do enriching of rice here?
Yes, and I don’t think they mentioned it a while ago, but it’s—there’s many different types of enriching, and it pretty much goes to what the customer wants.
Brown rice, I guess, has—already has a lot of nutrients in it.
That’s correct, and—and the main problem you have with the brown rice is storage, because the—all of the bran and the oil—I mean the oil that’s in the bran is hard to keep without spoiling. You know it will rancid, get rancid awful quick, so you have to be real careful.
And what kinds of varieties of rice do you farm here?
We produce only long grain rice.
So does any of the rice that’s farmed here wind up on Louisiana store shelves?
Oh definitely yeah. There’s—there’s some mills—this mill sells commercially—I mean domestically, but only in large quantities like 25-pound bags.
What is it about the geography of this area that makes it a good place to grow rice?
I think it’s a combination of the water availability. We have surface water that’s available; we have good groundwater that’s available. We have the temperate climate. We have the rainfall. We have the—we don’t need the humidity but we have that.
Do you know how long rice has been farmed in Louisiana and how it got here?
I think rice was here—it came into the US in the 1700s or something, and I think my—my relatives came here in the mid-1860s, and I think at that time they brought a lot of the rice—brought the rice industry from just small pieces, you know in individuals’ yards or whatever, or small areas, into a commercial entity, you know. So it’s probably 1860s to 1900s is the most—when most of the expansion took place.
So your family was integral in doing that?
Yes. We—well it—the German settlement in Roberts Cove is where many of the Germans—when they came into the US they settled in the Roberts Cove area. And at that point, that’s when they—they used the type soil they had there to produce rice.
And so your father, I guess, was from—of German descent. Was your mother also?
Yes, yes, yeah. They both were.
And so do y’all consider yourselves Cajuns?
No, we’re German [Laughs]. We’re German descent, but you know we’ve—they—the cultures have mingled. I mean meshed together, so it you know—it’s all one in the same I guess now. It’s not—back when my grandparents or great-grandparents came here it was different than it was now.
It was your great-grandparents who were the first generation here?
Yes. My grandfather was, I think, 10-years-old when they came.
And where did you grow up?
I grew up in Lake Charles, yeah. My father and them were—were born and raised in Mowata, which is between Crowley and Eunice. And then my dad said his dad bought land, but then he quit buying land and started having kids, and he didn’t have enough land for the kids, so they—he had to move away, so he came to Lake Charles.
And when you were growing up… you sold your rice to a rice mill. Did you keep any behind just to eat at home and process at home, or did you always buy your rice in the grocery store?
We—we usually would take a small amount and bring it to—there were local mills or people that had small mills at their—on their farm or at their home, and they would mill the rice for you. But we did that when I was real young. I guess after—I guess pretty much most of my life, though, it was all—it all came from a commercial facility.
Did you ever have brown rice?
No, I’ve never had brown rice. It was always milled rice. It was many, many years you know—I never even knew there was such a thing as brown rice I guess ‘cause we—we never did. We always used polished rice.
I have about a million more questions, but you have to go ‘cause you’re starting the rice harvest. Can you tell me just to—to close up, what kind of gumbo your family makes?
We love—we enjoy the seafood gumbo where you have shrimp and crab, or oysters or whatever, and shrimp or—or seafood and okra. We—my mother especially would—we always had okra in the gardens and she would cook the—fry the okra down, dry it and put it in the—in the gumbo, the seafood gumbo. But that was again something that’s in the later years. Earlier it was mainly just chicken or duck. Well I guess mostly it was duck because that’s what was, what they lived off of you know—the animals in the area, you know. They—they killed the ducks and had duck gumbo, or goose gumbo more than anything, and then it’s like anything else: we’ve kind of progressed in our habits and stuff and we’ve gone to more conventional type meats and stuff in our gumbo.
I guess you could just go out into the rice fields and get a goose or a duck?
Exactly, and—and that’s what they did. They would—a lot of ducks in the area, so they would kill the ducks, put them in the freezer, and carry them through the—the rest of the year.
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