Crash Course In Sugar Cane
● Published by Robert Frey
St. Edward Sugar Cane Festival FridayBy Hailey Hensgens Fleming
Fields of green spanning the horizon, tractors rolling and the smell of burning cane in the air can only mean one thing - harvesting season is right around the corner and Sugar Cane Festival is too. Those who grew up in New Iberia can attest to the fact that the weeks and days leading up to that last full weekend in September, when we celebrate the Louisiana Sugar Cane Festival, are unlike any other. Festivalgoers, both young and old, wait in eager anticipation for the fun to be had and memories to be made as we honor the largest agricultural commodity in the state of Louisiana and the farming heritage that has contributed so much to our way of life. Of course, it is a time most thrilling for the children as they enjoy carnival rides, marvel at gigantic tractors and star in their own parade. However, for the students at St. Edward School, Sugar Cane Festival week means a little bit more as it has also afforded them an opportunity to learn more about the industry and honor its connection to the community thanks to a long-standing tradition, unique among local schools.
For the past few decades, St. Edward School has deliberately chosen to keep their doors open on the Friday of festival weekend, unlike other schools in the area. However, rather than a mundane school day, administrators have taken the opportunity to turn that day into a fun, informative time, which has come to be known as Sugar Cane Festival Friday. Karen Bonin, Principal of St. Edward School, explains, “When the Farmers’ Day Parade stopped, the principal at the time found it very important to stay in school and instead, turned that day into one when we are learning about the sugar industry and about our community.”
Sugar cane adorns the front posts of the school and children’s artwork depicting tractors and farmers canvas the hallway as the kids dressed as little farmers return, eager to begin the day’s myriad of activities. Classes and testing schedules continue uninterrupted, however most have been adapted to embrace the festival theme. The day begins by attending a Farmers’ Day Mass in the on-campus chapel. “Over the years, our regular Friday Mass has developed into a Farmers’ Mass,” explains Bonin. “We now invite our families who are farming families to come to the Mass and to come up for a blessing.” Among those blessings are those for safety, protection and gratitude for the role they play in our parish accompanied by a small gift of appreciation.
Following Mass, the kids escape into the courtyard to find massive tractors waiting to be explored, graciously provided by one or two local farmers. Children dressed in white t-shirts, jeans, bandanas and boots, ranging from Pre-K3 through 3rd grade marvel at the size of the tires towering over them, sometimes three to four times their own height, and are given the opportunity to sit inside. “Often times, they’re able to climb up the steps and see inside the cab of the tractor, so they can kind of have the same view a farmer does and have the experience of being in a tractor, even if just for a moment,” says Bonin.
Next, the children get to indulge their sense of taste at an informative display organized by one of the St. Edward parents, who is also the wife of a farmer. In addition to viewing a slideshow and learning about local products made by cane sugar, students have the opportunity to taste a stalk of sugar cane straight from the field. Parents prepare the little pieces of cane and the kids get to chew the fibers and taste the sweet flavor inside before spitting out the rest.
All in all, Bonin says the day is about giving students opportunities they may never have had otherwise and helping them make connections to the world around them. “For a child to connect the crops they watch grow in the field to the food that is on their table is invaluable,” she states. “If you’re in a community, like New Iberia, that heavily relies on the sugar industry, it’s very important and very beneficial that we expose our children to that. It’s a part of where they live and who they are so they should learn and know something about it,” she adds.
Sugar cane isn’t the only subject St. Edward students get a crash-course in on Sugar Cane Festival Friday. Administrators also stress the importance of community involvement and knowledge and put that into action by orchestrating an annual 3rd grade field trip to the Bayou Teche Museum. Students have the opportunity to tour the Museum and learn about the cultural and agricultural roots that run deep in the area through interactive exhibits and displays. “They often come back from this field trip very excited about the new knowledge of things that are happening or have happened right in the place where they live,” acknowledges Bonin.
The young students take all of these activities in stride, excited to be learning about their agricultural heritage. “It’s the culmination of some of the things they’ve been learning in the classroom, whether that’s in religion or science or they’ve read about it in reading,” she states. “It’s the culmination of the whole week’s preparation, in many facets of our curriculum, and they’re very excited about it.”
Students and teachers, alike, are thrilled to be a part of a day that has become such a staple in the St. Edward community. “Over the years, it’s just become a part of what we do,” Bonin expresses. “It’s become a full week-long celebration of our community, our industry and our culture. It’s also very faith based in that we give thanksgiving for our farmers and what they do in our community, as well as teaching students the parable of the sower and what goes along with having to trust in God as you nurture and grow something.”
Several alums share her sentiment and have maintained their connection to Sugar Cane Festival Friday, returning year after year to take part in the Farmers’ Day Mass. “It’s always kind of awing when the teenagers show up and they’re giving up their day of sleeping late to come and spend that time with us,” Bonin remarks. “It speaks volumes.” Bonin also recalls a year equally as awing when Queen Sugar, who was New Iberia native, Shawntel Smith, at the time, chose to spend her final day as queen touring the school and spending time with students. “It was very beautiful and meaningful that St. Edward was a place she wanted to come back to and be a part of during her last day as Queen Sugar,” she recalls. “We were just so touched.”
Whether for student, teacher or alum, Sugar Cane Festival Friday will continue for many years to come, the significance of which cannot be denied. “It’s important to have a time to celebrate your community and totally focus on that - especially when the greater community celebrates it,” states Bonin. “It’s a time for a lot of pride in who we are and learning what this community is all about. It’s an awesome day and I’d never have it any other way.”