Making hot sauce and working to save wetlands

Jun 15, 2021, 10:10 PM | Updated: Jun 16, 2021, 12:58 am

AVERY ISLAND, La. (AP) — As storms grow more violent and Louisiana loses more of its coast, the family that makes Tabasco Sauce is fighting erosion in the marshland that buffers its factory from hurricanes and floods.

Overall, the effort is probably a standoff, says CEO and president Harold “Took” Osborn, great-great-grandson of the McIlhenny Co.’s founder. But in a state that has lost 2,000 square miles (5,200 square kilometers) of its coast since 1932, holding your ground is a victory.

The company has been brewing Tabasco Sauce since 1868 on Avery Island — the tip of a miles-deep column of salt — and now fills up to 700,000 bottles a day, selling them in 195 countries and territories.

While sinking land is a problem throughout southern Louisiana, Avery Island and four smaller salt domes along the Gulf Coast are still slowly rising.

But the danger from hurricanes remains. A 20-foot (6.1-meter) high, $5 million earthen levee now encloses the 40 acres (16 hectares) or so around Tabasco’s factory because Hurricane Rita’s storm surge pushed floodwaters within inches (centimeters) of it in 2005.

Much of the wetlands work is low-tech, enlisting volunteers to plant marsh grass in the 30,000 acres (12,100 hectares) around the small island a bit north of Barataria Bay, one of the areas hit hardest by the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Osborn holds a master’s degree in environmental science from Oxford University, but one might say conservation is in his DNA. The company’s founder, Edmund McIlhenny, was a self-taught naturalist. Osborn’s great-grandfather, E.A. McIlhenny, created an egret rookery at the island in 1895 because the birds were nearing extermination by hunters who sold their plumage to adorn women’s hats.

In recent decades, McIlhenny Co. has armored shores against erosion with big rocks and has terraced wetlands to slow waves enough to let sediment drop out and form new land, Osborn said. “But the thing that works the best for the least amount of money is grass,” he added.

As he steers a company boat, Osborn, 58, points to an expanse of grass stretching deep into the marsh. Ten years ago it was open water — an oilfield canal that had widened over time.

Its mouth was plugged by planting clumps of smooth cordgrass a few feet apart wherever the bottom was a foot (30.5 centimeters) or less below the surface.

While the grass traps sediment, new shoots spring up from underground stems. “It catches good and it starts walking out,” Osborn said.

Grass also gets planted along other parts of the shoreline. At one spot, a few lines of grass run alongside the bank for about 20 or 30 yards (18 to 27 meters). One of last year’s hurricanes — either Laura or Delta — pulled out a wide swath of grass behind the scraggly row.

Osborn said the company also has plugged at least 15 of the many canals created by oil companies as shortcuts through the marsh. Oil companies that wanted to work in the area plugged some of them as part of their contracts, he said.

Marsh restoration around Avery Island has the added benefit of helping protect cities and towns to the north, said Mark Shirley of Louisiana Sea Grant. “Storm surge and hurricane protection is directly related to the marshland between you and the Gulf of Mexico,” he said.

After a decade or more of leading a summer 4-H class called Marsh Maneuvers, Shirley is intimately familiar with the planting process. In one day, a crew of 16 high-school students pulls up enough clumps of grass from a healthy area to fill two flatboats, then plants the grass along a shoreline or canal mouth.

“After a year or so, each small clump has multiplied 10 or 12 times and you have an acre or two of grass,” he said.

Multiply that by four classes each summer, plus other groups, and it adds up.

It takes about a decade for a canal to fill in completely, said Heath Romero, McIlhenny Co.’s land manager.

The family also played a big part in creating the Rainey Conservation Alliance to foster larger wetland restoration and coastal protection projects across 187,000 acres (75,700 hectares) in St. Mary, Iberia and Vermilion parishes. Neighboring private landowners and the Audubon Society are the group’s other members.

They have rounded up at least $80 million in grants — from $1.3 million in state surplus money for extending a shoreline protection project to $24.9 million for replacing more than 400 acres (162 hectares) of marsh killed by saltwater intrusion and restoring freshwater flow.

A demonstration project designed to protect 4,000 acres (1,600 hectares) created skinny terraced ridges 5 to 6 feet (1.5 to 1.8 meters) high — up to double the standard height. Some were planted with trees, others prepared as rookeries for seabirds and wading birds.

When Hurricane Barry hit three months after the project’s completion in 2019, the marsh behind the terraces was undamaged, according to a report commissioned by Audubon Louisiana, which owns some of the wetlands.

“Those (ridges) are expected to last between 50 and 100 years,” rather than 20 or so, said Erik Johnson, the state organization’s director of bird conservation.

The alliance is based on the idea that “what’s good for our neighborhood is good for me,” said John Foret, who worked with the group as a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration employee when it was formed in 2010 and became its executive director in October.

Osborn said there’s more to wetlands restoration than protecting a five-generation family business. “My family understands that the land has been very good to us and it’s our duty to honor, respect and preserve it,” he said.


Follow Janet McConnaughey on Twitter: @JanetMcCinNO

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


This photo shows Issey Miyake at the National Art Center in Tokyo on March 15, 2016. Japanese media...
Associated Press

Reports: Famed Japanese designer Issey Miyake dies at 84

TOKYO (AP) — Issey Miyake, who built one of Japan’s biggest fashion brands and was known for his boldly sculpted, signature pleated pieces, has died. He was 84. Miyake died Aug. 5 of cancer, Japanese media reports said Tuesday. Miyake defined an era in Japan’s modern history, reaching stardom in the 1970s among a generation […]
3 hours ago
President Joe Biden with first lady Jill Biden waves as they walk on the South Lawn of the White Ho...
Associated Press

Biden to sign $280B CHIPS act in bid to boost US over China

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Joe Biden is preparing to sign a $280 billion bipartisan bill to boost domestic high-tech manufacturing, part of his administration’s push to boost U.S. competitiveness over China. The Rose Garden ceremony on Tuesday will include lawmakers, union officials, local politicians and business leaders, the White House said, as the president looks […]
3 hours ago
Taiwan's military conducts artillery live-fire drills at Fangshan township in Pingtung, southern Ta...
Associated Press

Taiwan holds drills, says China seeks control of seas

PINGTUNG, Taiwan (AP) — Taiwan’s foreign minister said Tuesday that China is using military drills to rehearse an invasion of the self-governing island democracy, while Taiwan’s military began its own live-fire exercises in a show of readiness to thwart off a potential attack. Joseph Wu said Beijing aims to establish its dominance in the Western […]
3 hours ago
A person wearing a protective mask walks in front of an electronic stock board showing Japan's Nikk...
Associated Press

Europe shares mixed after Asian decline on tech downturn

TOKYO (AP) — European benchmarks were mixed Tuesday after gains in most Asian markets despite weakness in technology shares, including Japan’s SoftBank. Such worries are coming on top of concerns about inflation and what central banks might do to curb that trend. Higher interest rates tend to work as a minus for share prices. Fighting […]
3 hours ago
FILE - Russian soldiers guard an area as a group of foreign journalists visit in Kherson, Kherson r...
Associated Press

Ukrainian resistance grows in Russian-occupied areas

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — In a growing challenge to Russia’s grip on occupied areas of southeastern Ukraine, guerrilla forces loyal to Kyiv are killing pro-Moscow officials, blowing up bridges and trains, and helping the Ukrainian military by identifying key targets. The spreading resistance has eroded Kremlin control of those areas and threatened its plans to […]
3 hours ago
An Arabic placard reads: "Open strike", is posted on a door of an empty municipality office, in Bra...
Associated Press

Public sector strike cripples cash-strapped Lebanon

BEIRUT (AP) — Tarek Younes was once solidly middle class and felt he helped contribute to society as an inspector in the Lebanese government’s consumer protection agency. But the country’s economic free-fall has eroded his income and civic pride. In his desperation, Younes has joined tens of thousands of public sector employees across the country […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

Sanderson Ford

Don’t let rising fuel prices stop you from traveling Arizona this summer

There's no better time to get out on the open road and see what the beautiful state of Arizona has to offer. But if the cost of gas is putting a cloud over your summer vacation plans, let Sanderson Ford help with their wide-range selection of electric vehicles.
Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine

Why your student-athlete’s physical should be conducted by a sports medicine specialist

Dr. Anastasi from Mayo Clinic Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in Tempe answers some of the most common questions.
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

Vaccines are safe if you are pregnant or breastfeeding

Are you pregnant? Do you have a friend or loved one who’s expecting?
Making hot sauce and working to save wetlands