Julie Baker was laser focused on her career. She earned an undergraduate degree in animal science, and a master’s degree and Ph.D., in human resource education, with a minor in ag policy from Louisiana State University.
She worked in a dean’s office at LSU for six years handling recruitment and retention duties.She left after accepting a position with the Louisiana Farm Bureau. “I was on a fast track for a career in ag policy development or member relations, and I thought the Farm Bureau was the perfect fit for me — until a month later when I met a rice and crawfish farmer from my hometown and fell in love,” says Julie Richard. Her husband, Christian, is her farming partner in their Kaplan, La.-based Richard Farms. “It changed the direction of my entire life.”
Before long, their first child was born, then another, and finally a third. “We picked up some land when two local growers decided to get out of farming,” says Richard. “A lot of different dynamics happened all at once, and I soon realized it wasn’t going to benefit me to leave the operation 20 times a year to travel for my job and leave Christian to raise three children,” says Richard.
“It might have been different if farming were just a nine to five job, but of course it’s not, and I felt like I was paying child care to raise my children and someone else to do the legwork I should have been doing on our operation.”
The young mother decided to use her education to the farm’s benefit and not to the benefit of someone else.
Six years later
Today, the Richards have established an agreed upon delineation of duties. Christian handles the production side of things, choosing seed, chemicals, fertilizer, and equipment. Julie handles the recordkeeping, billing, payroll, and most of the administrative duties. “We’ve created a good balance that works well and allows each of us to participate in things related to the children,” says Richard. “It has also opened doors of opportunity to other things.”
The Richards have embraced the “Farm to Table” movement that continues gaining momentum across the country. While they have done more in that direction with their crawfish operation, they are beginning to consider ideas about marketing their rice locally. “Three years ago, I went through the arduous permitting and labeling process so we could become wholesale crawfish sellers,” says Richard. “I have three grocery stores, two restaurants and two catering operations that use our crawfish exclusively. They take pride in sourcing the crawfish locally because they know it will be consistently fresh.”
The Richards also host events in their farm shop that is spacious and easily transformed to accommodate large meetings. Their office is attached to the shop for convenience and logistics. “When we were building the shop, the LSU AgCenter was going through a budget crunch. Their offices had just flooded, and they needed meeting space,” says Richard. “Hero Hunts, an organization that places servicemen and women in the great outdoors, meets here once a month.”
Richard also hosts meetings for a few women’s groups in which she participates. It has given her more than a few chances to educate the unaware about farming. One conversation started when the combine rolled into the shop and a lady asked what it was. “I told her that’s a big combine, and it’s got a big price tag on it, but it helps us put quality and reliable food on your family’s dinner table,” says Richard.
Attending a parent’s meeting in Kaplan recently, Richard was asked what she does now that she does not work. “The lady just didn’t realize I was up at 10 p.m. the night before filling out tax forms and applying for new tags for our grain trucks,” she adds. “We will stop what we are doing to tell farming’s story to anyone because if the Rule of the 7 (how many times a buyer should hear a message before it becomes impactful) holds true, we want to hit our message with as many people, as many times as we can.”
Julie and Christian both serve on farming-related organizations and live what they preach — conservation and sustainability. “I serve on our state Farm Service Agency Committee which helps guide the implementation and dissemination of policy, and he serves on the Vermilion Parish Soil and Water Conservation Committee which helps guide conservation efforts. It keeps us linked in to information and programs that impact our farm,” says Richard. “The new buzzword is ‘renewable farms,’ but that’s been standard operating procedure around here for years. We want our operation to remain sustainable not just for our children, but for our neighbors and the community as a whole.”
Thanks to some visionary people, the Master Farm Program (MFP) in Louisiana was at the forefront of the sustainability movement decades ago. It established environmental impact standards which are followed and monitored.
“Through three phases, MFP allowed me to implement those practices on some small- and large-scale projects after we purchased a farming operation that, let’s just say, was not the picture of sustainability,” says Richard. “We converted the land — which was highly-erodible, back into rice. Today we’re using an old canal structure that once gravity-fed water to flood rice fields as a water-holding reservoir. We circulate water to 600 acres that we precision leveled and fitted with drop pipes. I sectioned off 210 acres of that land for my MFP projects.”
Richard understands the MFP makes a farmer more cognizant of impacts made on the land by farming activities. The program ensures there is a level of measurability. “It’s a way for us to say, yes, we’re sustainable because these are the things we’re doing,” says Richard.
Julie has told Christian, and many of her friends, that it took her longer to get her Master Farmer rating than it did to get her Ph.D. “The final steps were hardest, but it was well worth it,” concludes Richard.