AgCenter sweet potato researcher receives national recognition

(03/08/22) BATON ROUGE, La. — For more than 30 years, LSU AgCenter researcher Don La Bonte has worked tirelessly on behalf of producers to further the science and sustainability of the sweet potato industry. His efforts were recently rewarded when he received this year’s National Impact Award from the National Sweet Potato Collaborators Group.

The LSU AgCenter has one of only three active sweet potato breeding programs in the United States. La Bonte has been an integral part of those efforts since 1988, shortly after the AgCenter’s release of the wildly popular Beauregard variety.

In the decades that have followed, La Bonte has overseen the releases of Evangeline, Orleans, Bayou Belle, Vermillion, Murasaki-29, Bonita and many other varieties, with Orleans becoming dominant across the Gulf South.

La Bonte currently holds nine patents on varieties released since 2006, helping to create a revenue stream that will ensure sweet potato variety development will continue at the AgCenter for years to come. He believes firmly in the power of teamwork.

“I believe the sweet potato team has been greatly enhanced in part because of Don’s leadership and willingness to promote the efforts of the team without concern for who gets credit or who is in charge,” said Chris Clark, an AgCenter plant pathologist who has worked closely with La Bonte.

La Bonte’s selfless idea of teamwork extends to producers, with whom he collaborates closely in the field to develop both short- and long-term solutions for issues that may arise. This includes continuing to breed disease-resistant cultivars.

“His sweet potato breeding work frequently takes him to producers’ fields, where he regularly interacts with growers,” said agronomist Arthur Villordon, of the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station. “This interaction helps provide the necessary feedback in enhancing his breeding program. Dr. La Bonte has used this feedback effectively to adjust to changing needs in the industry.”

Tara Smith, Sweet Potato Research Station coordinator and director of the AgCenter Central Region, considers La Bonte a bit of a rock star in the field of sweet potato research, a crop that contributes more than $85 million to Louisiana’s economy each year.

“Dr. La Bonte embodies the qualities you hope to see in a researcher,” Smith said. “He has never lost sight of the reason we are conducting research, and that is to help farmers and to help sustain an industry we all serve.”

While Smith said La Bonte has made his mark in the academic world, it is his in-field work that affects people’s everyday lives — and that impact extends well beyond Louisiana’s borders. Sweet potatoes are an important crop in many countries.

“His real impact is seen in producers’ fields in Louisiana and throughout the world,” Smith said. “One hundred percent of Louisiana’s sweet potato acreage is devoted to varieties developed in the AgCenter breeding program.”

Don La Bonte

LSU AgCenter researcher Don La Bonte, shown here in the field with a red-skinned sweet potato, was recently named the National Impact Award winner by the National Sweet Potato Collaborators Group. LSU AgCenter file photo by Olivia McClure

3/8/2022 3:50:20 PM
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