LSU AgCenter awarded more than $300,000 in specialty crop grants

Richard Bogren, Picha, David H.  |  10/28/2009 6:55:30 PM

News Release Distributed 10/28/09

The LSU AgCenter has received two specialty crop block grants for two research and promotion projects to enhance the competitiveness of Louisiana-grown sweet potatoes and nursery crops.

The grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Specialty Crop Block Grant Program were awarded to the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, which will coordinate the projects administered by the LSU AgCenter.

Dr. David Picha in the LSU AgCenter School of Plant, Environmental and Soil Sciences, received a two-year grant of $77,500 to enhance the marketability of Louisiana sweet potatoes by identifying and promoting the nutritional composition of different sweet potato products.

The second grant of $233,000 over three years will help fund a project to promote Louisiana-grown plants for Louisiana landscapes, said Dr. Regina Bracy, resident coordinator of the LSU AgCenter’s Hammond Research Station in Hammond.

The program, dubbed Louisiana Super Plants, will identify superior plants that perform well in all areas of the state, Bracy said. These plants will be grown by Louisiana nursery growers and marketed through retail establishments in the state.

“This program will directly help the Louisiana industry – growers, wholesalers and retailers – as well as the state’s landscape contractors and homeowners,” Bracy said.

Bracy said she expects “the program will identify about five plants a year that meet the criteria of performing well all over the state and survive summer heat, which is important in Louisiana.”

In consultation with representatives of the state horticulture industry, LSU AgCenter evaluators will notify nursery growers of the varieties selected for the program. Then the growers will propagate the plants for sale through commercial channels.

“We’re just getting started,” Bracy said. “We’ll have our first release in the fall of 2010 to give growers time to produce plants for retail sale.”

Bracy said the program will initially include annual and perennial flowers and later will include shrubs, trees, vines and ground covers – “Everything you can plant and grow in Louisiana.”

Once the varieties are identified, they will be featured in gardens at the LSU AgCenter’s Hammond Research Station, LaHouse – Home and Landscape Resource Center in Baton Rouge and other display and demonstration gardens in other parts of the state, Bracy said.

“Many consumers are influenced by a product’s nutritional value in making their food purchasing decisions,” Picha said. “In addition, nutritional labeling is becoming increasingly important in fresh-produce marketing.”

Picha’s project will identify the concentrations of vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates and protein in sweet potatoes so the information can be used to inform consumers about the nutritional benefits of the vegetable.

“Sweet potatoes may contain high amounts of certain vitamins and minerals and fit well into the perceived health value property of a food,” he said. Consumer demand is increasing for sweet potato fries and chips in addition to various canned and packaged fresh-cut products.

“These grants are a reflection of how the LSU AgCenter can help Louisiana producers,” said Dr. David Boethel, AgCenter vice chancellor for research. “Our support of the state’s agriculture is enhanced when we can add federal grant dollars to the funds we receive from the state legislature.”

The USDA awarded a total of 55 grants totaling about $49 million for 745 projects to improve the competitiveness of specialty crops. Specialty crops are defined as fruits, vegetables, tree nuts, dried fruits, horticulture and nursery crops, including floriculture.

“These specialty block grants give industries an opportunity to do research and promotions,” said Agriculture and Forestry Commissioner Mike Strain. “We chose two very deserving projects that would produce the highest degree of measurable benefits to Louisiana specialty crop producers.”

The sweet potato industry in Louisiana contributed more than $47 million to the state’s economy in 2008 while the nursery crop industry contributed more than $170 million, according to the LSU AgCenter’s Ag Summary.

Rick Bogren

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