It’s all about family when it comes to the Lewis’, one of Louisiana’s best-known sugarcane empires. A state built on the work and lives of farmers, Louisiana has long been known for its history formed in the many sugarcane and crop fields within its borders. Generation after generation, decade after decade, hard-working families have placed their lives’ work into the many areas and industries surrounding sugarcane. This communal effort shines through in the community spirit and familial attitude held by many of the farms to this day.
When it comes to the lifeblood of Louisiana, the sugarcane industry, with the Lewis family as a remarkable example, embodies the effect of tenacity and commitment upon a family business. Allowing, what was once a small farm of just five acres, to blossom into the booming industry it continues to be to this day. In this article, Kreol explores the past and present of the Lewis family, from the humble origins of their farm to the challenges they’ve faced along the way, as well as looking towards the future of this generations-long enterprise.
The origins of the Lewis Family
A business that continues to thrive over 50 years since its inception, the Lewis family were already familiar with the world of farming long before striking out on their own. The farm, as a business, started out with Linden Lewis, great-grandfather of the current generation of Lewis Family Farmers. Linden and his brother, Roosevelt, started to grow sugar cane in the late 1800s. Before then, they were sharecropping with white landowners for a very small percentage. When Linden retired, he sold his farm to his son, Eddie J Lewis Sr for approximately $50.
Eddie Sr. remembers, “I grew up on the farm and always wanted to do this. I didn’t have nothing else in mind but working on the farm. I started off, young age, on the fields with my father from about 10 or 12 years of age, and just kept going. I started full time farming at 18 years old. My grandfather, he was a cane farmer, so was my daddy. I started off with about five acres of cane and we kept growing, growing, growing. When my daddy retired, I just kept on, and over the years accumulating and picking up land here and there. I been doing this for about 57 years!”
Before the growth and industrialization of the sugar cane crop, farming for Eddie Sr. was primarily a source of survival; selling whatever he could to make a living “We used to plant cotton, okra, pepper, and a little sweet potato. We always planted sweet potatoes and corn. We always raised a few heads of cattle and I still have a few heads”. Of course, over time, as the world of farming became more industrial, it made sense in Eddie J Lewis Sr’s mind to opt for sugarcane, as one of the hardiest – and profitable – options available at the time. With that diversification came even more passion for the work, with Eddie Sr’s three sons (Eddie Jude Lewis Jr, Wayne Joseph Lewis and Kenry James Lewis) and one daughter, Karen, taking on vital roles in the management and labour required to ensure the crops flourished, thus leading to higher profits and even more effective farming in the years to follow.
Eddie Jude Lewis Jr
In 2011, Eddie Jr. was co-owner of Lewis Family Farm, working fields closely with his father, the “Boss Man” Eddie Sr. He was married to the beautiful Creole woman, Cynthia Bernard Lewis, and had three sons, Eddie III, Jordan and Hunter. Everything seemed well and on track to eventually take over the
farm from his dad, just as he did from his. But, as often the case, life had other plans. Eddie Jr. died unexpectedly in the cab of his tractor doing what he loved best: farming in the fields. He was just 49. His death was devastating for the family, but the spirit, passion and dedication that he instilled in his
children helped them to continue and stay strong.
Jordan described his dad as “The most quiet, humble person ever. You wouldn’t even be able to tell that he owned a business. He wasn’t a biggity type person, he always said we’ve got too many chiefs. He was a worker. He didn’t want to be like the boss, but in certain situations, he had no choice but to be the boss.”
Eddie Jr. wanted his boys, first and foremost, to be educated. Cynthia recalls, “I’m so glad I had the chance to get married young and to enjoy it and have 3 young fantastic boys. Hunter, Jordan, and boo, Eddie. My husband really wasn’t crazy about them going into the farm because he had seen the black farms and their struggle. You may have heard or seen “The Queen sugar”, the show on TV, it’s nice. But when you’re down here dealing with the reality, it’s not nice. It is a struggle and a lot of hard work. So, he believed that you must have your education to fall on.”
At the time of their fathers’ death, Eddie III, graduated in general studies with a minor in business administration. He studied Kinesiology (the scientific study of human or non-human body movement) and became a stockbroker. Jordan just graduated in general studies with a minor in behavioural science, and minor in business administration. Hunter was doing a man’s work on the farm but still a teenaged student at Comeaux High School.
The 2011 sugar cane harvest would prove to be the hardest for the Boss Man and his grandchildren. The Boss Man, Eddie Sr, had the strength and experience to carry on, but the boys took it hard. They were down. But it was the youngster, who pulled the family back together.
Jordan remembers, “The very next day after my dad passed away, we were in planting season. We were trying to get ready for the funeral and obviously very sad. We were just going to take off and tell everybody you are all can go home for the rest of the evening. But Hunter, 13 at the time, said, “No, that’s not what he (Father) would want us to do”. He got up on the tractor and kept going. So, my strength came from him, to see that he had that much passion and strength even being so young”.
Role of women in Lewis Family
While due credit is given to men working on the farm, the role of women is often and unjustifiably, overlooked. There is doubt that women play a significant and crucial role in running the farms. However, by and large they have remained “invisible workers”. Because of small “visibility” of their contributions, they are not regarded as equal partners in the development process.
We all heard the saying: “Behind every successful man there is a strong woman”. This is certainly true in Lewis Family. Lilly Mae Lewis (née Boudreaux), wife of Eddie Lewis Sr., who passed away in 2014, was instrumental in the management of the farm. While men were working the fields, Lilly would oversee the farm administration and financial operations. She was described as, “sweetheart, kind, loving, but also smart and a shrewd businesswoman” who kept the farm in order.
Cynthia was equally involved with her husband, Eddie Jr., until his death. Although she stepped away from dealing with the farm operations, she remains close to her children, offering guidance and emotional support.
When his dad died, Eddie III decided that it was time to quit banking and get back to the Farm. He recalls, “The Lewis family farm was all about family. My grandpa strategically figured out what every child was good for. And each of these characters had personalities so my dad probably had six, seven friends who wanted to be just like him, so that was six, seven more hardworking employees that you can’t find anywhere, you have to be cool with these guys. They drew employees to the farm, but it was more than just employment, they all were working together to make some money. You’re pulling dirt together, you’re digging ditches, you’re spraying… Everybody is working together, but my grandpa (Eddie Sr.) was the Boss Man so he made sure if he was paying that dollar he was making sure everybody did the job right so the wheel would continue to turn, and the thing was with my family is that we’re consistent. We don’t play around; we don’t let too many things get in our way. Put it that way. We don’t complain, we don’t cry, we just figure out a way to keep pushing. So, I think that’s the mindset intellectually where we come from.”
According to Jordan, for himself and his brothers, farming has always been an integral part of life, as it was for the generation before them, and every generation prior: “I’ve been farming since I was probably about seven, eight years old? I’ve been in the field with my dad, not actually too much hands on, but have always been around it all my life. I planted the sugarcane, walked in the rows with the guys. I started driving tractors around about sixteen
Jordan graduated in May of 2011, and three months later, he went straight into business, “We had to pick up where dad left off. In February 2012 I started my own company.”
Cynthia, who inherited the land of Eddie Jr, decided to split it between the sons, “I just passed it to the boys. Eddie III and Jordan got 22% each. Hunter was 13, he could not make the loan at that time. So, I passed it to the two of them, but I always said, that when he comes of age, he’s coming in as full partner. He will have his own start.”
Hunter’s youth and passion inspires Eddie III, “Hopefully we can bring on some younger people in. We are in transition now with younger brother Hunter, who is really smart, straight-A college student, he understands a lot of the business and he’s learned a lot so, he’s going to be able to translate that to the younger workers that are coming up.”
Discrimination and challenges
The Lewis Family may be a household name for many in Youngsville, Louisiana, and beyond, thanks to the reputation and history of the Lewis’ sugarcane farming spanning over five decades. However, the family have faced their fair share of challenges throughout their long run of sugar cane farming, with Eddie III explaining that beyond their farm they face discrimination in the broader community, even to this day:
“After buying out our grandfather, we’re the largest young African-American sugarcane farmers in the country. But, there’s a lot of white farmers in the area that don’t like the fact that I dress clean, I am successful, and I operate an efficient business. They are prejudice, so we have to make sure that we’re on top of our game from A through Z. We have to be in the sugarcane fields, we have to be at the banks, we have to be at the meetings at Farm Bureau. I am in Washington, D.C. lobbying, being involved with Congressmen and the list goes on”.
Eddie III, Jordan and Hunter, are often criticised for being too young and inexperienced to run the farm, but they are determined to prove the critics wrong.
Sugar cane farming is not an easy business, especially in Louisiana, where nature can have a significant impact. Of course, it’s not just the modern-day version of the Lewis Family Farm that faced challenges. As Eddie Sr. remembered, how nature could be just as much of an issue as human intervention back in the earlier days of farming. Louisiana is known as much for its random weather patterns as it is for its farmland, with frequent storms and even hurricanes thrown into the mix on occasion, “Well, Mother Nature, that’s one thing the farmer got to contend with. He got to put up with Mother Nature and there is nothing you can do about this. Just ask God to give you the strength and the health and give you good weather. If you complain about rain, but you do need the rain. You complain about the heat, but you do need it. You complain about the cold weather, but you need that too”.
In fact, the somewhat unpredictable weather played a large part in the transformation of Lewis’ land from a humble farm to the powerhouse it is today. Eddie Sr recalls: “With a lot of other crops, the weather affects them more or worse than the sugarcane. Sugar cane is resilient, so if you get a lot of rain you survive. You might hurt some crop but you always made it”.
Technological advancement: How farm life has changed
With six generations of hard work, labour and farming expertise under their belts, the Lewis’ have weathered plenty of technological advancements when it comes to the way plantation life works in the modern day; and have come out on top every time. Under the guidance of a new generation of savvy owners, it seems that the Lewis Family Farm is more advanced than it has ever been; but it hasn’t always been this way.
In Eddie Sr’ days, and the days of his father and grandfather, hard graft and labour were musts to ensure the success of the Farm, which each generation delivered in spades. At the age of 74, he continues to carry out manual work on the farm where possible, something he attributes to his long life and ongoing success.
But that’s not to say the oldest member of the Lewis family hasn’t invested in the technology used to advance the Farm. As the first generation where the Farm exploded in size, from several acres to several thousand, Eddie Sr. took it upon himself to invest in the best technology he could afford. He recalls the first investments he put into advancing the equipment used on his farm:
“I managed to get an old loader, fixed it and added newer hydraulics. I didn’t have much credit at the time but then I bought one, two, three, yes, three cutters. I had a two-row after. Then I got three combines at one time, but that was one too many almost.”
Eddie III is full of respect for the older generation, “We just try to be half as efficient as my dad and my grandfather were, because they were crazy inventors of things to make sugar, to move as fast as they could according to the weather. So, we’re real smart, we watch everything to an inch, like everything he does, everything my dad did. The best soil, the best tools, and running the employees efficiently and leading by example. That’s how I think we became where we are today.”
As for the modern-day Lewis family farm, the three young owners have serious designs on the technology they’re going to invest in to take their industry to the next level. From putting money into modern equipment to applying new and more efficient methods of farming, Jordan, Eddie III, and Hunter certainly have a thoroughly contemporary approach when it comes to the evolution of the Farm; but it’s all still profoundly rooted in the legacy created generations before them.
According to Hunter, while their grandfather is certainly still savvy about some areas of modern technology, there’s certainly room for further improvement: “…technology has become a little bit more advanced and if you want to maximize your crop and you want to maximize your financials, it’s the only way to go”. So it seems inevitable that, following the buy-out of their grandfather’s shares, that more technology will soon sprout up around the farm, to maximize that profit and further their mission of becoming the top African-American sugarcane family in the next 15 years.
What the future holds for the Lewis Family Farm
For the Lewis Family Farm, the future looks bright in the hands of the 6th generation of sons to take on the many fields and sprawling empire that Eddie Lewis Sr has handed down willingly. College educated, insightful and wholly invested in the world of sugarcane, both Eddie III and Jordan seem to have a clear vision of exactly where their business will grow – and how to do it too – with younger brother Hunter following in the footsteps and even leading when it comes to the strength of the spirit.
The Lewis family is proof that, when it comes to long-held businesses or family-run enterprises, each new generation has something vital to add. Whether it’s Eddie Sr’s initial investment into the growth and diversification of his fields or the unique perspective and business-centric approach of his grandchildren, who have already proved themselves integral to the future development of this longstanding empire.
So, what’s next for sugarcane on the Farm? The family farm over 3000 acres. Serious plans are underway to develop the Lewis Family Farm over the next 10-15 years, leading towards the brand becoming one of the most potent USA based sugarcane factories. These grand designs, combined with the business savvy and professional background of the Farm’s new owners, suggests that the Lewis Family is only going from strength to strength.
This is further displayed in how the brothers are working in harmony to further the endeavours set forth by their ancestors. As Eddie III explains it:
“You have to work together. So, I might yield to my little brother, and then he might yield to my baby brother, and just a little system going around, if something makes sense you pull that idea, if it don’t, you just kind of push down to the next one. We all take different roles and you just have to pull together and you have to stick together especially with the core of the family, your brothers.”
When asked how he sees the farm’s future, Hunter replied, “We come from a successful sugar cane farmers family, with strong traditions, values and passion for what we do. We aim high and always look for the ways to improve and advance our operations. We have the knowledge and experience to advance the industry, create more opportunities, identify and implement new technology. Farming is our life and we will do everything to preserve. We have what it takes to make it a success.”
Whatever the future holds for this long-standing Louisiana Family Farm, under the leadership of Eddie Lewis III, Jordan Lewis, and Hunter Lewis – along with the endless font of expertise and old school knowledge that is Eddie Lewis, Sr. – it’s sure to be a success.