Promoting the people and rich culture of Lafayette, the gateway to South Louisiana and the region known as "Acadiana."
Mike Fruge, Fourth Generation Farmer and Owner of JT Meleck Distillers, Shares Evolution of Family Business Model
Mike Fruge, founder and owner of JT Meleck Distillers, joined Discover Lafayette to discuss the evolution of his family's farming business and what led him to create award-winning vodka from rice.
Mike has a great story to tell, one which not only captures the tenacity of our Louisiana farmers but also one of an entrepreneurial spirit that has led him to continue to evolve his farming operations to eke out all he can from the land. In this podcast, we celebrate that precious food commodity which our South Louisiana culture revolves around: rice. We also celebrate the tenacity of our Louisiana farmers which is exemplified by our guest.
Mike Fruge is a rice and crawfish farmer along with his brother, Mark, and he descends from a long line of rice farmers in Acadia Parish. He grew up in Branch, LA on the family rice farm founded by his great, great uncle, John “JT” Meleck, who started growing “Providence Style” rice in 1896.
John Meleck originally migrated to Louisiana from the Midwest right after the Civil War years in search of cheap land. It took the family two years to complete the trek to Louisiana by covered wagons. After learning the hard way that corn and other commodities didn't grow in Louisiana as well as they had in the Midwest, Meleck started growing what was called "Providence style rice:" the rice was planted on low-lying bottomland which depended on Mother Nature to provide the rainwater which would seep down from the higher ground to nourish the crop. Meleck's rice farm joined many other rice industry operations which took off around the turn of the 20th century.
Pictured is John Meleck, Mike Fruge's great, great uncle, driving the vehicle along with Mike’s grandfather, the little boy in the back. John Meleck is the inspiration behind the name of Fruge's JT Meleck Distillers.
Fast forward to the 1980s, when Mike and his brother, Mark, were among the first to enter the aquaculture industry. At that time, most crawfishing was considered a hobby and there weren't many commercial crawfish farms. Fruge Farms was one of the first to convert to 100% crawfish farming as a way to make a living while preventing their rice fields from being depleted. As Mike says, "We weren't the first, but we were pioneers." The terrain of Southwest Louisiana provides ideal growing conditions as the production requires flatlands that can be easily flooded and now almost all rice farmers are also crawfishermen. Today, Fruge Aquafarms is a thriving rice and crawfish farm that has grown to roughly 4000 acres.
With the initial growth of his aquaculture endeavor, Mike looked for a market and took to the road in his pickup to find buyers. He began selling his crawfish product in Dallas in 1989 and had to educate the market on how to prepare the crawfish with which they were unfamiliar. "My timing was a little early!" he said.
Today that pickup truck in which he personally delivered crawfish has grown into Dallas-based Fruge Seafood Co. which is a regional wholesale distributor of fine seafood in Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma. Its #1 top seller is salmon and the company specializes in upscale fish choices for fine dining experiences. Mike is a conservative businessman who learned through the school of hard knocks how to stay profitable, without going to outside investors, while keeping this family business afloat. "Coming of age in the oilfield in the 1980s, I can't describe how bad things were. 20% of the population literally left the area. I never wanted to borrow money unless it was absolutely necessary. We've been very conservative and our risks were calculated."
Fruge Seafood has grown into a Dallas-Based regional wholesale distributor of fine seafood in Louisiana, Texas, and Oklahoma.
Lafayette City Police Chief Thomas Glover – Focused on Community
Lafayette, Louisiana welcomed our new police chief, Thomas Lee Glover, Sr., on December 23, 2020. He joined Jan Swift of Discover Lafayette to discuss what his career in law enforcement has taught him and his belief in the utmost importance of involving the community as a means of enhancing law enforcement effectiveness.
A native of Tallulah, Louisiana with maternal roots from Lafayette, Chief Glover graduated from Grambling State University with a degree in criminal justice. He immediately joined the Dallas Police Department and was with the department on active duty for 36 1/2 years; the day after retiring, he immediately joined the force as a reserve officer performing many of the same duties.
Chief Glover applied for the position of Police Chief because he thought he could make a difference in Lafayette. "I came from a department that mirrored what Lafayette is going through, in Dallas we experienced the same things 25 to 30 years ago. We had the same issues on the table. I was a part of the Police Association that worked to mend the tears in the community. I am very honored to have been selected. I thank Mayor Guillory for employing me as police chief. "
"I came from a department (in Dallas, TX) that mirrored what Lafayette is going through, that we experienced 25 to 30 years ago. We had the same issues on the table. I was a part of the Police Association that worked to mend the tears in the community. I am very honored to have been selected. I thank Mayor Guillory for employing me as police chief." Photo by Leslie Westbrook of The Acadiana Advocate
Mending fences in Dallas entailed hiring outside consultants to review policies from top to bottom, especially on the use of deadly force which had disproportionately affected Blacks and Hispanics. The department amended its curriculum to address appropriate training and procedures on the use of force. They also learned the importance of getting the community involved in law enforcement. While the chief says Dallas still has issues and is still working on relationships, they have come a long way, and continue to work on a daily basis to improve relations.
The Chief has learned that community policing is effective; it has been tested and it works in practice. He's learned firsthand that involving clergy, business owners, and the legal and educational communities with the police department works to take care of social ills works and successfully reduces crime. It helps to have as many eyes as possible watching the streets. "I'd rather have the 132,000 people here in Lafayette with their eyes watching out than to have only 289 officers working on crime," says Chief Glover.
As a means to encourage community engagement, all Lafayette police officers will be required to attend at least one event per week, be it a Girls Scout meeting, local church events, or other similar happenings. He's also directing a set of officers to address social ills such as trash not being picked up or code violations. His goal is also to partner with charitable groups such as Catholic Charities of Acadiana to reduce crime and reduce the number of calls coming into the 911 Center.
On community policing: "My analogy is this on how to prevent crime: think about a yard with a lot of weeds growing. You call on your yard person to cut the weeds down but they always come back. Community policing is you calling that lawn person and they treat the yard with weed preventer. And then, you only need the police or the yard guy once every other season. If community policing works like it is designed, the same thing would happen to reduce the need for policing services. Neighborhoods that traditionally have needed policing services would no longer need services because the things that created that need would have been eliminated....
Liz Webb Hebert – Chair of Lafayette City Council Focused on Improving Local Quality of Life
Liz Webb Hebert, Chair of the Lafayette City Council and representative for City Council District 3, joined Discover Lafayette to discuss her passion for service at the local level and working to improve the region's quality of life.
Liz Webb Hebert and Nanette Cook were selected as council chairperson and vice chair in 2021. Photo by Brad Bowie of The Advocate.
Growing up in Carencro, Louisiana, and the baby girl of her family with four older brothers, Liz learned early about the importance of speaking up effectively for herself. A lifelong resident of Lafayette Parish, she graduated from Teurlings Catholic High School and Northwestern State University.
After college, she was blessed to work for wonderful bosses who gave her free rein in using her skills in an imaginative way: first for Leonard Louvierre of Zea Rotisserie & Bar in Lafayette, and then with Greg Davis and Pam Deville at the Cajundome Arena & Convention Center. The freedom she was afforded to execute her ideas to grow business opportunities are experiences she will always cherish.
Yet, Liz was called to explore service at a higher level as a young adult. "I've always wanted to make our community better," Hebert explained, and her experience in Leadership Lafayette led her to better understand the issues facing our city and parish and how she could get involved in the process as an elected official.
In 2015, her mentors approached her to consider running for the Lafayette City-Parish Council which had an open seat upon the retirement of then-Councilman Keith Patin. With encouragement from her family and husband, Aaron Hebert, she leapt into the race, which included two formidable opponents who she describes as "incredible, friendly, courteous and kind." She made the runoff and was elected to serve her first term on the Lafayette City-Parish Council which began in January 2016.
"Fix the Charter" was passed by Lafayette Parish residents and now we have two councils: the Lafayette City Council and the Lafayette Parish Council. Liz ran and was elected to serve in Lafayette Council District 3 and assumed office January 2020.
The Lafayette City Council. Pictured from left to right: Nanette Cook, Andy Naquin, Glenn Lazard, Pat Lewis, and Liz Webb Hebert.
District 3 has 26,000 residents, and Liz says they are a joy to represent; they stay informed of the issues, are engaged, well-educated, and enjoy the highest wealth per capita among other districts in our city.
Typical issues brought to her attention by citizens include trash, rezoning issues, or concerns about not getting services. Proactive in her outreach to constituents, she attends meetings of Homeowners' Associations in her district so she can stay on top of issues of importance. Liz always encourages people to first call 311 or go online to the 311 website to report concerns such as panhandling, animal control issues, noise complaints, etc. She also wants you to reach out to her via her Facebook page to message her about problems you need help with or to use the Next Door app.
Liz Hebert also sends out a monthly newsletter to keep people abreast of issues and you can subscribe here. She fields calls and emails for those of us outside of her district to request her support for the issues facing their neighborhood and welcomes us all to inform her of current concerns.
"I want my constituents to call me so we can address issues. I can't fix a problem if I don't know about it. People may be upset about an issue for a year before they call me and I could have helped them early on." Liz Webb Hebert encouraging people to reach out for help.
Dr. Courtney Hopkins, Senior Chief Medical Officer of Vitalant Blood Services, on How to Prepare to Give Much Needed Blood Donations
Dr. Courtney Hopkins, Senior Chief Medical Officer of Vitalant Blood Services, joined Discover Lafayette to discuss how to adequately prepare to donate blood, a resource much needed to keep our community safe and healthy, and one that is always in short supply.
Most of the U.S. population is eligible to donate blood, but only about 3% actually donate.
Board Certified in Clinical Pathology and in Transfusion Medicine/Blood Banking by the American Board of Pathology, Dr. Hopkins previously spent seven years with the American Red Cross.
She graduated with a BA in Biology from Arcadia University and earned her medical degree from Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Dr. Hopkins completed her transfusion medicine fellowship at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and the David School of Medicine at UCLA.
We asked Dr. Hopkins to join us as a follow up to our interview with Amanda Landers, Regional Director of Vitalant Blood Services, which was produced in November 2020. Our discussion was centered around the fact that our region has been experiencing a critical shortage of blood donations, amplified by the COVID shutdown which has negatively impacted blood drives at schools and businesses. The shelf life of blood is short, and we must ensure an adequate supply to help patients in need. Red Cell units last from 21 to 42 days; platelets last 5 days; and plasma can be stored up to one year if frozen properly.
After that initial interview with Amanda Landers, Jan Swift was motivated to contribute to the blood supply and attempted to give blood twice, but was not qualified due to a low hemoglobin count.
While Swift's doctor said she had healthy iron levels, the criteria for someone to qualify for a blood donation is a bit more complicated. We wanted to get to the bottom of this and asked Dr. Hopkins to explain how the blood donation process works and why Vitalant wants to ensure that blood donors remain healthy as they contribute to our community.
Low hemoglobin is a common reason people are turned away from donating blood. When you sign up to donate blood at Vitalant, technicians prick your finger to screen your hemoglobin level.
About 70 percent of your body's iron is found in the red blood cells of your blood called hemoglobin and in muscle cells called myoglobin. Hemoglobin is essential for transferring oxygen in your blood from the lungs to the tissues.
Your blood is not actually tested for "iron," but for the hemoglobin which contains the red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body. When you donate a whole unit of blood, your body loses about 250 mg. of iron in that one unit donation. Vitalant wants to ensure that you leave their facility healthy and whole.
Iron deficiency is a common reason someone would have a low hemoglobin count, but not the only reason. You can increase your hemoglobin levels by eating a healthy, low-fat meal prior to your blood donation, in addition to ingesting a salty snack immediately prior to showing up for your donation.
"Hydration is key to having a positive blood donation experience. Eat a healthy, low-fat meal prior to giving blood, and ingest a salty snack immediately prior to your appointment. Drink plenty of fluids, and forgo coffee and other caffeine laden beverages as they are diuretics and will affect the outcome." Dr. Courtney Hopkins, Senior Chief Medical Officer of Vitalant Blood Services.
It's also important to be well hydrated before showing up to donate blood; coffee is a diuretic and causes dehydration so you should not count your coffee as a "beverage" when preparing to donate blood.
David Cheramie, CEO of Bayou Vermilion District
David Cheramie, CEO of the Bayou Vermilion District ("BVD"), joined Discover Lafayette to discuss the operations of his organization.
Passionate about his calling to preserve our unique culture while educating others on the topic, and stressing the interdependence of our people with the land and water, Cheramie brings a poetic voice to our podcast.
Serving as CEO of the BVD since 2011, Cheramie previously served as Executive Director of CODIFIL, the Council for the Development of French in Louisiana. His entire adult career has focused on francophone issues, from teaching in schools to educating others about the unique culture our region enjoys.
He calls himself a "member of the lost generation," a child and grandchild of a French-speaking family who never taught the young ones to speak the language due to the stigma of speaking "Cajun French" in the 1950s and 1960s. But fourteen generations ago, his family moved from France and his nuclear family raised him in the French ways; he always wanted to learn the language. An opportunity to spend a year in Montpellier, France as a sponsored student of CODIFIL gave him the opportunity to become fluent. An added bonus and the most wonderful lagniappe, Cheramie met "the prettiest French girl," to whom he has now been married for almost forty years.
Cheramie shared the beauty of learning a second language and how the "floodgates were broken" when he realized he was speaking, thinking, and dreaming in French. "I felt this was my real personality coming out."
He lived in France for seven years and worked as a clothing salesperson in stores throughout Southern France. Calling it a great experience as he got to know the people and culture, he became indistinguishable from the French natives. People were shocked to learn that he was a U. S. citizen and hadn't grown up in France.
In January 1989, a chance encounter with Dr. David Barry at a banquet celebrating the Bicentennial of the French Revolution led Cheramie to come back to Louisiana. At that time, Barry was Department Head of Foreign Languages at USL (now the University of Louisiana at Lafayette) and was creating a new Ph.D. program in Francophone studies. He successfully courted Cheramie to move back and join the program; Cheramie became the second person to earn a Ph.D. in Francophone studies.
Cheramie was inspired by Dr. Barry Ancelet, another USL professor, who has been an active spokesperson in promoting the Acadiana culture and dispelling myths that denigrated the "Cajun." A prolific writer, Cheramie began writing in French and quickly published three books of poetry which were published by Centenary College's "Les Editions Tintamarre. Since those early days, he has published dozens of articles and has been a keynote speaker and presenter at conferences around the world.
David Cheramie is a passionate spokesperson for helping people understand the symbiotic relationship between our culture, the land and water. "We're a part of the land and the land is a part of us. It's inseparable. We wouldn't have the same culture if it weren't for the fisherman, the hunters, the trappers, the farmers and ranchers. It informs our culture. "
Cheramie authors En Francais, S'il Vous Plait in French and English for Acadiana Profile Magazine, and his writings bring to life the unique culture we enjoy in this region. Focusing on artists, musicians, the food, historical figures and events, he captures the essence of what makes South Louisiana so special. Cheramie quoted the old saying, "The spoken word flies away but the written word stays," to reinforce his belief that writing in French/Cajun words will guarantee that ensuing generations will retain the knowledge of this precious culture and its manner o...
Kim Boudreaux of Catholic Charities of Acadiana: Following the Path Set Forth by God to Care for Our Most Vulnerable
Kimberly James Boudreaux, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Acadiana, shares the expansion of services offered by her organization on this episode of Discover Lafayette.
Kim has dedicated her life to being in service to others. As a young adult, she sold all her possessions and traveled abroad to work as a missionary, including time spent with Mother Theresa’s Missionaries of Charity.
Our community has been blessed to have Kim Boudreaux at the helm of Catholic Charities of Acadiana, while she raises her young family with her husband, Matt. This is our second interview with Kim; you can hear our first podcast here.
In the three years since our first talk, Catholic Charities has greatly expanded the services it offers, having opened the doors to The Emily House in 2018 which offers an emergency shelter for homeless women and children. They have added new responsibilities by taking over the Immigration Services and Deaf Action Center formerly run by the Diocese, as well as assuming management of FoodNet Food Bank and Rebuilding Together Acadiana. In 2019, Catholic Charities also became entrepreneurs by taking over ownership of Crossroads Catholic Bookstore, which is now known as Crossroads Collective.
The organization has traditionally taken care of our most vulnerable neighbors through outreach efforts such as disaster response, as well St. Joseph Diner, St. Joseph Shelter for Men, St. Michael Center for Veterans, the Stella Maris Center, and the Monsignor Sigur Center.
Between the COVID shutdown and the disastrous hurricanes that hit Southwest Louisiana, the detrimental effects upon incomes, employment, and housing stability have been devastating. The face of homelessness changed significantly in 2020. While we traditionally related homelessness to a mental illness or substance abuse disorder, today the homeless look vastly different.
Before COVID, people could move to a family member's home when tough times hit, perhaps keeping their employment while temporarily looking for alternative housing. But the combination of COVID and job losses associated with the shutdown have greatly impacted their struggles. In many cases, doubling up with family members has been found to be unsustainable: it can feel impossible to have multiple families juggling their children's online Zoom classes while the adults attempt to work from home.
In March 2020, Catholic Charities counted 166 people in their homeless program. Unsheltered homelessness had been at an all-time low as the organization did not turn people away when they were in need and would provide a place to sleep even if it was on the floor. But the social distancing required by the pandemic proved to be too great a challenge given the existing shelter space available for sleeping quarters. And, for the first time since the 1970s, St. Joseph's Diner had to be closed because the group could not meet the legal requirements for indoor seating or keep the revolving groups of diners and volunteers safe from contracting the virus.
The decision was initially made to convert St. Joseph's Diner into a shelter and Catholic Charities continued to feed the 166 clients under their care daily. (Kim noted that others were also fed through the back door when in need.) Once the stay-at-home order was lifted, the organization worried about COVID spreading throughout its community as most people in the programs are medically vulnerable. The clients were transitioned into hotels, and Catholic Charities' staff are present on-site at the hotels 24/7, operating the same services they always have, working to maintain a safe and stable environment.
Since January 2020, the Acadiana region has experienced an 82% increase in homelessness (with family hom...
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Inspiring guest. Excellent interview skills.
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