AgCenter pays tribute to Avoyelles Parish sweet potato industry with release of new, early-maturing variety

(06/25/24) MANSURA, La. — It can be harvested up to 30 days sooner than other sweet potatoes. It is a high yielder and tastes great, though its skin is a shade lighter than the sweet potatoes many Louisianans are accustomed to.

It’s the LSU AgCenter’s newest sweet potato variety, Avoyelles — named for the parish where scientists initially saw its potential and a parish that has played a central role in the state’s sweet potato industry for decades.

The variety was officially released June 20 at a ceremony at the Avoyelles Parish extension office, where local farmers gathered to hear about the latest developments in the AgCenter sweet potato breeding program, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.

Avoyelles can be harvested about 90 days after planting — considerably sooner than the 110 to 120 days required by other varieties.

“That’s something the industry growers have asked for,” said AgCenter sweet potato breeder Don La Bonte. “The value is this time of year — when you start getting into July and August when you’re running out of product for the retail and processing sectors — here’s something you can harvest without losing a lot of yield and be able to service your customers.”

An early-maturing variety also holds potential for late plantings, La Bonte said. If farmers are delayed in starting their crops, they could turn to the faster-growing Avoyelles and still be able to harvest on time.

The lighter-skinned Avoyelles offers strong yields on par with previously released AgCenter varieties such as Beauregard and Orleans, which are industry mainstays. But it is resistant to the root-knot nematode — a desirable trait that the older varieties lack. It also has a pleasant, creamy texture, making it a “good-eating potato,” La Bonte said.

He first took notice of Avoyelles a couple of years ago when he was testing potential new sweet potato varieties. As La Bonte dug up trial plots at the Ricky Juneau and James Deshotel farms in Avoyelles Parish, he was impressed by the sheer volume of potatoes produced by Avoyelles, then known simply as 18-100.

“That’s why Avoyelles struck us as a good name,” he said, “because it’s really in this region that we discovered it had something special about it.”

The process of developing, testing and releasing a new variety takes several years. It all begins in about a dozen nurseries across Louisiana, where La Bonte and his colleagues in the breeding program cross sweet potato plants.

“We induce flowering through stressing the plants. We then collect true seeds. They’re just like a little morning glory seed,” explained AgCenter sweet potato specialist Cole Gregorie. Sweet potatoes are a relative of morning glories; both plants have vines, heart-shaped leaves and purplish flowers.

About 30,000 to 40,000 seeds are planted annually at the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station in Franklin Parish. Those that perform well move on to additional rounds of testing in the field. About 300 are eventually selected for storage evaluations.

“When you hear 18-100, which was what Avoyelles was formerly known as, that’s because it was the 100th selection in 2018,” Gregorie said.

Later stages of testing involve trials on private farms.

“Of that initial 300 that we selected, probably three to five each year get to see this,” Gregorie said. “At the end of the day, out of 30,000 seeds, we may release a variety every five to seven years. So it’s not a 1-in-a-million shot that a plant comes along and becomes a new variety, but it’s about a 1-in-200,000 shot. It’s a lot of seeds, a lot of evaluation, a lot of culled lines that happen to get to this point.”

La Bonte said farmers’ cooperation is critical to the development of varieties, allowing him and his team to subject potential new releases to a wide range of environmental conditions.

“If we have this in seven or eight locations, not only are we getting a judgment on weather,” he said. “Some places get flooded; some get drought. We also have different soil types and different cultural practices.”

He thanked those in the audience for their help in evaluating Avoyelles.

“You’re busy planting, you’ve got crews you’re working, you’re just swamped with work,” he told the farmers. “But you find time to get us where we need to be, help us plant, and then at harvest you do the same thing. I’m just in awe of your willingness to help us out.”

Tara Smith, director of the Sweet Potato Research Station and the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service, said Avoyelles Parish holds an important place in the Louisiana sweet potato industry. Though the parish has seen a reduction in sweet potato acres over the years, it continues to contribute meaningfully to a statewide industry that annually adds more than $85 million to the economy.

“Our industry has certainly gone through a lot of change and adversity due to many reasons,” Smith said. “But our industry has a realized many successes on the backs of the producers that are in this room.”

She and Gregorie both invited producers to attend the upcoming annual field day at the Sweet Potato Research Station on Aug. 29, noting this year marks 75 years since the facility and its breeding program were founded. In 1949, horticulturist Julian C. Miller established the station, where he made early strides in developing orange-fleshed sweet potato varieties that grow well in Louisiana.

Two men standing next to a table with a box of sweet potatoes sitting on it.

LSU AgCenter sweet potato specialist Cole Gregorie, left, and sweet potato breeder Don La Bonte stand with a display at the unveiling of the new Avoyelles sweet potato variety on June 20 at the AgCenter Avoyelles Parish office. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Pile of sweet potatoes.

The LSU AgCenter's new Avoyelles sweet potato variety features a lighter-colored skin and a creamy texture. It's an early-maturing variety that offers root knot nematode resistance. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

Woman speaking to group of people seated at tables.

Tara Smith, director of the LSU AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station and the Louisiana Cooperative Extension Service, speaks during an event unveiling the new Avoyelles sweet potato variety June 20 at the AgCenter Avoyelles Parish office. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

6/25/2024 7:17:21 PM
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