Louisiana Sweet Potatoes: Busy Tropical Season Causes Problems for Farmers

Sweet Potatoes Photo: Mississippi State University

As Louisiana sweet potato farmers near the finish line in this year’s harvest, a clearer picture is emerging of how much damage was wrought by heavy rains that were dumped on their fields during a busy tropical storm season.

Up to 40% of the crop was damaged in Avoyelles Parish, while Acadia Parish producers escaped the back-to-back tropical systems from August to October with virtually no problems. Damage estimates for northeastern Louisiana farms fall everywhere in between.

Louisiana has 6,600 to 6,700 acres of sweet potatoes this year, about 70% of which has been harvested, said LSU AgCenter extension associate Myrl Sistrunk. Some growers are digging up rotten potatoes in fields that took on water during the recent storms, particularly Hurricane Delta in October.

Hurricane Laura in August and Tropical Storm Beta in September didn’t cause major problems, Sistrunk said. In fact, “some locations were needing some rainfall,” he said.

Delta was a different story. Some farmers sent photos and videos to Sistrunk showing potatoes floating out of flooded fields.

Most northeastern Louisiana growers have storm-related damage on about 10% of their crop. Morehouse Parish is an exception; Sistrunk estimates 20% to 25% of the crop there is rotten or otherwise damaged.

Farther south, producers in Acadia Parish fared well. The opposite is true in Avoyelles Parish, where 30% to 40% of sweet potatoes are damaged, Sistrunk said.

“The Avoyelles Parish area had about 25% crop loss prior to Delta from successive rain events in September and prolonged saturated conditions,” said Tara Smith, director of the AgCenter Central Region and coordinator of the Sweet Potato Research Station.

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Some of this year’s potatoes may not hold up well in storage.

“Potatoes coming out of saturated conditions, depending on how quick they got out, could impact the storability of them,” Sistrunk said.

At Black Gold Farms, which grows about 40% of Louisiana sweet potato acreage at sites throughout the northeastern parishes, workers are approaching the final stretch of harvest carefully.

“We’re making sure that we’re not carrying too much dirt to the shed so that we get good air flow through there,” said farm manager Todd O’Neal.

Most potatoes harvested following Tropical Storm Beta, which dropped about 5 inches of rain in northeastern Louisiana, look OK, O’Neal said. His company is now digging up potatoes that were in the field when Hurricane Delta brought more than 9 inches of rain.

“We are seeing a little bit more rot on those, which is understandable,” O’Neal said. “We’ve had a lot of rain over the fall. We’ve had 14 inches from the storms, not including anything that catches us during harvesttime.”

“I think we’re going to be OK,” he added. “Not as good as what we could have been, but I think everything’s going to shore up all right.”

Prices are good this year, and so are yields, Sistrunk said. Growers who sell to the fresh market are getting about 400 bushels per acre, he said, while those who sell to processors and aim for larger potatoes are harvesting in the 500- to 600-bushel range.

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