Tara Smith, Purvis, Trace | 10/24/2006 1:23:35 AM
Despite extremes in weather and a small decline in acreage over last year, an LSU AgCenter sweet potato expert predicts an average year for producers.
"We’re about 70 percent through harvest," said LSU AgCenter sweet potato specialist Dr. Tara Smith. "Based on what we’re seeing so far, most of the growers are pleased."
Rainfall amounts were below average during the growing season in Northeast Louisiana, where nearly 80 percent of the sweet potatoes are grown in the state. Smith said widespread irrigation capabilities and timely rain during critical periods helped combat the drought.
"Growers were irrigating immediately after planting to promote good plant establishment," Smith said. "Sweet potatoes are a drought-tolerant crop, but it is important for the crop to get a good start initially."
Myrl Sistrunk, county agent for Morehouse and West Carroll parishes, said the growers in Northeast Louisiana dealt with a 13-inch rain deficit this year.
"Yields have varied from field to field, but they’re better than expected," Sistrunk said. "I think we’re going to average about 350 to 400 bushels per acre."
The weather during the growing season was kinder to South Louisiana producers. Gerald Roberts, county agent for Evangeline and St. Landry parishes, said rainfalls during the growing season relieved drought conditions plaguing the area for the past five years.
"It’s been a breath of fresh air," Roberts said. "This crop year will probably be a little above average."
Yields for South Louisiana growers averaged 350 bushels per acre during the previous drought-stricken years. In 2006, Roberts expects an average yield of 375 bushels per acre.
"The crop in South Louisiana is in better shape than it has been in previous years," Smith said. "They have received a few more rains."
Recent heavy rains have disrupted harvests in both regions. Smith said some of the fields not yet harvested have already been de-vined. De-vined plants have lost their leaves, and leaves help the plants absorb moisture.
"The water is just sitting there, even after the rainfall stops," Smith said. "It will take longer for the fields to dry out, which can create favorable conditions for roots to break down in the field. We hope the heavy rains have ceased, and growers will be able to harvest the remainder of the crop in a timely manner."
According to Roberts, the onset of autumn also affects how well the fields can dry out.
"As the temperatures drop, the soil does not dry out as quickly," Roberts said.
The recent rains worry Ken Thornhill of Thornhill Produce in Franklin Parish.
"Up to this point we had beautiful harvest conditions, beautiful potatoes and wonderful yields," Thornhill said. "Now we don’t know what we’ll be able to salvage. So much depends on what happens from here on out."
The recent rains may not be a problem for growers who planted late because of dry conditions early in the growing season.
"Late-planted sweet potatoes still need time to mature," Smith said. "If we can avoid prolonged wet conditions, the recent rain will help the crop."
Larry Fontenot of E & L Produce in Evangeline Parish is one of those producers who may benefit from the recent rains.
"Most of the stuff left in the field was planted in the second half of the planting season," Fontenot said. "We definitely think the yield will be a little above average."
Fontenot’s optimism was tempered with some concern. If the wet weather pattern continues, Fontenot fears he may lose part of his crop.
"As you get into November, the ground doesn’t dry out as well because there are fewer daylight hours," said Fontenot.
A drop in acreage also influenced the 2006 sweet potato crop. Smith said this year’s acreage is about 16,000 acres, a slight decline from last year.
"A few growers have retired or have gotten out of the business for other reasons," Smith said.
Unfavorable weather conditions and declines in acreage were offset by early planting. Smith said weather conditions in May and June allowed many growers to finish planting toward the end of June. This allowed the growers to begin harvesting sooner, which helped them avoid the effects of adverse weather conditions and insect pressure that can occur late in the season.
Another favorable development was the low impact of the sweet potato weevil. Smith said a new bar code tracking system for weevil pheromone traps put in place by the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry has made the process of reporting the number of weevils per field more efficient, which in turn allows growers to respond quickly to increased numbers.
"The primary insect pests most producers are dealing with statewide are cucumber beetles, white grubs and white-fringed beetles," Smith said. "There have also been isolated reports of sugarcane beetle damage."
Some producers did encounter weed control issues. Smellmelon, alligator weed, pigweed and ground cherry caused the most trouble.
"If you have a weedy field, more times than not you’ll see decreases in yields," said Smith.
The market outlook for the 2006 sweet potato crop is positive. Smith said the 2005 crop supply is all but gone, which means the holiday demand will be satisfied by this year’s crop. Smith expects the new crop will meet the demand this year, but increased production may be necessary in the years to come because demand year-round has been steadily increasing.
"Consumers are beginning to understand the health benefits of incorporating sweet potatoes into their diets," said Smith. "We’re seeing a push for a quality stored product, which is why a lot of growers are putting in storage facilities that can hold sweet potatoes for up to a year."
Smith expects the trend to continue.
"There are a lot of different ways to utilize sweet potatoes. They are not just a baked item on the table at Thanksgiving anymore," Smith said.