When Mike Sullivan met a 30-year-old beginning farmer, he never thought it would launch a relationship that would influence an entire African-American farming community in the Cane River region of Louisiana.
“Sometimes good things can come out of a not-so-good situation,” said Sullivan, farm loan manager in the Natchitoches Farm Service Agency (FSA).
That’s what happened the day Thomas Roque, Jr., walked into the Natchitoches FSA County Office. Roque was hoping to get a loan to purchase calves to raise and sell for profit on his family’s 800-acre farm, purchased by his great-great grandparents in 1916. But things didn’t work out as easily as he hoped.
Roque said he failed to mention on his loan application that he owned a small plot of land. That simple oversight was all it took to be turned down for funding.
Sullivan said it is unusual for his office to deny a loan, so applying a little persistence and dedication, he made it a point to help the young farmer.
“Mr. Roque didn’t realize he had to disclose that information,” said Sullivan. “I felt like it was the right thing to do to help him save the historical legacy of his family farm.”
Roque is a descendant of the Cane River Colony that was founded by Marie Theresa Coincoin, an African slave, and her children with Frenchman Claude Thomas Pierre Metoyer. Metoyer freed Coincoin and gave her 68 acres of land in Isle Brevelle, just south of Natchitoches, where she farmed and raised her children. She later received more than 660 acres of land through a land grant and established multiple farming operations. At her death, she had amassed nearly 12,000 acres of land and was one of the wealthiest freed slaves in the United States.
That’s the heritage and entrepreneurial spirit Roque is preserving as a tribute to his ancestors.
“I get up in the morning, put on a suit and tie, take my daughter to school and go to work at the bank,” said Roque. “When I come home, I eat, play with my daughter, put on my jeans and work the farm until midnight.”
The Roque Brothers Farm has about 600 pecan trees and they raise nearly 500 calves that they fatten and sell on Superior Livestock Auction. They also bale hay and shake, pick, bag, weigh and sort pecans for other landowners. Yet, Roque is not the official owner of the farm. His father along with his aunts and uncles own the land, but he and his brother put the work into it.
“Other landowners in the area are renting the land for others to use, but we are taking the bull by the horns and carrying the tradition forward.”
Sullivan said he understood how important this land was to the Roque family.
“Rather than viewing this as an adversarial process we worked closely together to overcome the eligibility problems, reinstate the loan application and close the loan successfully,” said Sullivan.
The relationship that developed between Sullivan and Roque spread through the Cane River community, prompting Roque to open up his farm for FSA, Natural Resources Conservation Service, and Rural Development to hold a seminar that would inform farmers about USDA programs.
“The meeting was a huge success and evidence of what can happen when FSA personnel and producers work together,” said Sullivan, who added that about 60 of the 84 attendees were African-American farmers. “There is a need for us to show compassion because everything is not cut and dry and we need to work with our customers to resolve our differences.”