Collaborations among growers and industry partners have long sustained the growth and profitability of the sweet potato industry in Louisiana.
This cooperation was never more evident as growers, processors, regulatory agencies, researchers and marketing groups came together for the annual LSU AgCenter Sweet Potato Field Day held Aug. 22 at Black Gold Farms near Delhi.
“In any agricultural community, producers are driven to see what other producers are doing,” said LSU AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station coordinator Tara Smith.
Small-plot research first conducted at the Sweet Potato Research Station at Chase applied on a commercial scale in cooperation with growers like Black Gold Farms helps researchers, producers and industry see how varieties and production programs perform.
“We like to be on the cutting edge,” said Todd O’Neal, farm manager at Black Gold Farms, currently the largest grower-shipper in Louisiana with more than 2,600 acres of sweet potatoes.
About half of the potatoes produced at Black Gold are destined for the fresh market through retailers across the southeastern United States, O’Neal said, while the other half is shipped just 13 miles north of the farming operation to the Lamb Weston facility where they will be processed for sweet potato fries.
“All of this research helps improve the size, shape and yield of the sweet potato, which obviously benefits the processing industry but also the fresh market industry. And of course, we like to see this research reduce those input costs so the cost of production will go down,” said Michelle McHargue, Lamb Weston senior food scientist.
The field day drew more than 125 people, including international visitors from South Africa along with representatives from North and South Carolina, Mississippi, Arkansas and Alabama.
“The impact of sweet potatoes is far greater than just the geopolitical boundaries of Louisiana,” said LSU AgCenter Associate Vice President Rogers Leonard.
Compared to other agricultural commodities produced in Louisiana that represent a larger number of growers and far more acreage, resources that support the sweet potato industry cover a broader spectrum from seed production and variety development to field production and marketing at the local level, Leonard said.
The sweet potato industry contributes about $100 million annually to the state’s economy. Louisiana currently ranks fourth in sweet potato production nationwide with just under 8,000 acres.
“The research done at the LSU AgCenter at Chase makes it one of the preeminent research stations in the world and keeps us ahead of the curve,” said Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain.
“It’s our job to make sure we don’t get new plant pests and diseases, and if we do get them here, we deal with them quickly. It is a team approach with the AgCenter,” Strain said.
The recent threat posed from the guava root-knot nematode discovered on a farm in Morehouse Parish one such example.
“We know where it came from, what day it arrived, exactly where it was planted, and the grower was helpful and immediately alerted everyone that it was there,” said AgCenter plant pathologist Chris Clark. “The Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry immediately became involved and worked with the AgCenter to develop a plan for dealing with it. And the grower has been very cooperative in executing that plan.”
The AgCenter is conducting a statewide survey, collecting and processing soil samples from agricultural production fields across the state, said AgCenter nematologist Josielle Rezende. To date, no samples have tested positive for the guava root-knot nematode.
“Our goal is to sample every sweet potato field as growers are harvesting the crop,” said AgCenter extension associate Myrl Sistrunk.
Recognized as a go-to research resource for all things sweet potato, from variety information and production practices to the latest pest and weed management strategies, the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station is also part of the National Clean Plant Network and is one of seven locations in the U.S. providing foundation seed and certified plant materials for producers across the nation and world.
The AgCenter sweet potato breeding program is one of only three active sweet potato breeding programs in the country.
Most of the sweet potato varieties developed by the AgCenter for commercial release find a fit in production programs across the Gulf South largely due to similar soil types and climate.
“That’s what these field trials are all about: to get that short list of those varieties that have the right characteristics to move into the industry if they show consistency,” said AgCenter sweet potato breeder Don La Bonte.
La Bonte is currently conducting several experimental variety trials across the U.S. and abroad.