Louisiana Sweet Potatoes: Farmers Hear About AgCenter Research at Field Day

The LSU AgCenter is working to develop early-maturing sweet potato varieties that would allow farmers to shave up to 20 days off the growing period and sell to the market sooner.

That and other research efforts aimed at improving farmers’ profits highlighted a field day on Aug. 17. About 115 people, including a group of about 35 small farmers from Washington Parish, attended the event at Venoy Kinnaird’s sweet potato farm north of Bastrop in Morehouse Parish.

Don La Bonte, AgCenter sweet potato breeder, said he is evaluating seven varieties that mature in about 90 days instead of the 100 to 110 days required for the Beauregard and other traditional varieties that dominate Louisiana’s 10,000 acres of sweet potatoes.

Early-maturing varieties do not keep as well in storage, La Bonte said. But they would give consumers access to fresh stock sooner and help farmers avoid adverse weather, pest issues and other late-season risks.

It takes several years to develop a new variety, and each one must be screened for traits such as resistance to disease and insects, flavor, shape and yield.

“I’m always on a quest to come up with a variety that’s better than what we grow today,” La Bonte said.

Another research project discussed at the field day focuses on how long slips, or plant cuttings, can be held before planting them without decreasing yield.

“For some varieties, it’s better to hold them a few days in the dark, and with others, it’s better to plant them right away,” said AgCenter agronomist Arthur Villordon.

He also is studying the benefits of planting by placing slips flat on top of rows — a practice that has to be done by hand because current planting machinery cannot do it — instead of inserting them vertically. Flat planting allows roots to develop at uniform lengths, which Villordon said can double yields and increase the number of No. 1-graded potatoes.

Mike Strain, commissioner of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, warned that funding for the research seen on display at the field day could be in danger when the state Legislature returns to session in 2018 and continues to look for solutions to the budget shortfall.

Describing sweet potato initiatives as “one of the jewels of the AgCenter,” Strain noted that research and outreach help farmers grow a better crop, which has economic benefits.

Sweet potatoes annually contribute about $76.1 million to the state’s economy, according to the AgCenter 2016 Ag Summary. That figure includes $32.6 million in value-added processing.

This year’s harvest is expected to begin in early September, said AgCenter sweet potato specialist Myrl Sistrunk.

“We have a great potential for the crop,” he said, but the frequent rains that have been common this summer could delay harvest and cause damage that would cut into yields.

National acreage fell this year to about 151,000 acres, Sistrunk said. But per capita consumption of sweet potatoes is still climbing as more people discover their nutritional benefits and companies produce more sweet potato-based products, he said.

Also at the field day:

  • Donnie Miller, AgCenter weed scientist, and Tara Smith, director of the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, reviewed products available to control weeds, nematodes and insect pests.
  • AgCenter plant pathologist Chris Clark said this year he has not seen many cases of black rot, a disease that was not a problem in Louisiana for many years and resurfaced around 2013. He said crop rotation can control the disease, and the AgCenter is looking to develop varieties with resistance.
  • AgCenter food safety specialist Achyut Adhikari said the AgCenter can assist farmers who want to develop food safety plans or complete Good Agricultural Practices (GAPs) certification, which could help them market their crop.
  • Paul Williams, a root crop buyer for Del Monte, announced his company is donating $25,000 to the AgCenter to fund development of varieties that are good for both the fresh and processing markets.
  • Kay Rentzel, executive director of the United States Sweet Potato Council, said her organization is monitoring tax reform and labor issues being debated at the federal level.

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