Louisiana’s Diverse Specialty Crop Industry

Linda Benedict  |  7/19/2016 1:49:55 PM

Allen Owings

In Louisiana, the specialty cop indus­try is indeed special. From sweet potatoes to nursery crop production to strawberries to citrus to mayhaws and sod, and even Christmas trees, the hor­ticulture industry in Louisiana is diverse and wide encompassing. Every parish in Louisiana has commercial horticul­ture production of some capacity. And this does not even include the backyard vegetable gardens, home fruit trees and expansive residential ornamental land­scapes that keep a significant portion of Louisiana citizens involved in horticul­ture in their day-to-day life.

The history of horticulture pro­duction in Louisiana goes back at least to the 1880s when nursery crops were being produced in the well-drained loamy soils of Forest Hill. Our parents and grandparents in the Florida Parishes may remember around 100 refrigerated strawberry-filled boxcars a day during harvest season leaving the railroad depot in Hammond during the 1940s heading to Chicago. St. Francisville, New Orleans and River Road planta­tion homes were landscaped many years prior to these days. Ornamentals like roses, camellias, azaleas and Southern live oaks planted hundreds of years ago are still around today.

AgCenter sweet potato breeding is still a national leader. New efforts in landscape horticulture research and plant trials are ongoing at the Hammond Research Station. The AgCenter has started a public gardens outreach initia­tive with new directions at the AgCenter Botanic Gardens at Burden in Baton Rouge. Turfgrass and ornamental researchers in environmental scienc­es are using new research techniques to preserve levees, slow coastal erosion and help nursery growers manage irriga­tion more efficiently. Fruit and vegetable crops continue in importance. The next generation of growers are doing more small-scale farming and producing for local markets. Many Louisiana citizens want to buy locally grown fresh produce.

While research is important, it takes a strong extension delivery program to “bring the university to the people.” The AgCenter still considers that the “state is our campus.” Every parish has an Extension Service office providing local, timely delivery of horticulture infor­mation. And in every office, most daily communication pertains to gardening and horticulture.

Programs such as Get It Growing, featuring LSU AgCenter horticulturist Dan Gill, provide daily radio along with weekly newspaper articles and televi­sion stories statewide. The Louisiana Super Plants program is a success story, featuring more than 30 highly recom­mended plants for Louisiana landscapes backed by AgCenter testing. Louisiana Master Gardeners and Advanced Master Gardeners have been trained to aid fac­ulty and volunteer thousands of hours each year in support of horticulture pro­gramming initiatives.

Extension turf specialist Ron Strahan reports that sod demand has increased in the past five years and should con­tinue over the next couple years. Sod growers and landscape contractors have expanded their businesses by installing athletic field turf and maintaining turf­grass on high school sports fields.

In garden centers most bedding plants and shrubs are sold in spring from mid-March through Mother’s Day. Independent garden centers having the most success are those diversifying their products by selling hard goods and seasonal holiday items. Garden centers in metropolitan areas also are expand­ing their sales to landscape profession­als, providing a convenience for smaller landscape firms and allowing garden centers to expand beyond the home gar­dener for additional revenue streams.

Landscape installers and lawn main­tenance firms serve both commercial and private customers with mowing and applying weed control products and fer­tilizers as well as installing and main­taining ornamental plantings.

Larger wholesale nurseries in Louisiana are doing well and even expanding production acreage because of plant shortages and gaps in inventory. On the other hand, small and mid-size nursery growers are struggling more to find their place in the market. Although the number of nursery growers is down to 460 from 625 over the past 10 years, overall wholesale production sales are up from $90 million to $118 million over the same period.

AgCenter sweet potato special­ist Myrl Sistrunk reported 9,300 acres in production in 2015 – more than in recent years – with yields at 450 bushels per acre. Sweet potato growers are pro­ducing more products for the processing market.

AgCenter vegetable specialist Kiki Fontenot reports that yields and quality of fall and winter vegetable crops have been good. Trends toward urban agri­culture and small farms are leading to more organic production in the vegeta­ble industry and small farms operated by one to two people who market locally at farms markets.

According to AgCenter pecan and fruit specialist Charlie Graham, the 2015 pecan crop in Louisiana was 5 million pounds compared with the 2013-2014 harvests of 11-14 million pounds. Pecan harvest from native stands is still strong in Louisiana with new international marketing opportunities.

Citrus growers saw a small orange crop in 2015. Peach production contin­ues to decline in Louisiana while straw­berry production continues to be stable in the Florida parishes.

While forestry is the No. 1 agricul­ture industry in Louisiana, special­ty crops rank No. 2 in terms of overall annual contributions to the state’s econ­omy. The nursery and landscape indus­tries – production, landscape services and retail sales – contribute $2.5 billion annually to the state’s economy. The fruit and vegetable sector of sweet pota­toes, other commercial vegetable pro­duction, small-scale fruit production and home gardens contributes another $400 million.

Horticulture has always been here and will always be here. Every person is touched daily by agriculture and every person is touched even more by horticul­ture – Louisiana’s growing industry.

Allen Owings is a professor of horticulture at the Hammond Research Station in Hammond.
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