Bruce Schultz, Roberts, Gerald
OPELOUSAS – Gerald Roberts, an LSU AgCenter and Southern University county agent in St. Landry Parish, said being chosen as 2005’s Mr. Yam punctuates his 29-year career of service to sweet potato growers in the area.
Roberts, who will be honored at the Yambilee Festival this weekend (Oct. 26-30) in Opelousas, said doing good work for the people of the area really has been his main focus through the years.
"I was ecstatic just to know that my work over the years had been recognized as valuable to the sweet potato industry," he said. "It’s good to know I had made a valuable contribution not only here but to growers across the state."
Cheryl Badeaux, Yambilee executive secretary, said Roberts was chosen by the 18-member Yambilee Board of Directors. That announcement was made earlier this year at the Yambilee Festival’s pageant and ball, and Roberts will ride in the Oct. 30 parade during the Yambilee Festival.
"We pick someone who has done a lot for the sweet potato industry," Badeaux said. "Gerald fit the bill perfectly."
Roberts said he was pleased and humbled.
"You realize where you started from, and you realize where you are. I realized the responsibility that’s also associated with it," he said.
Roberts started on a small farm in the Prairie Ronde community of St. Landry Parish. With five siblings, his family raised livestock, corn, cotton, garden vegetables and sweet potatoes.
"The one thing we had was a labor source," Roberts recalled.
After attending Holy Ghost Catholic High School in Opelousas and graduating from Plaisance High School in St. Landry Parish, he went to Southern University to study vocational agriculture education. He later earned a master’s degree in extension education from LSU.
Roberts started his career with Southern University and the LSU AgCenter in 1976 with an Extension Service appointment in Evangeline Parish that had him working with small farmers.
"I went to work to help people from Day 1," he said. "I get up everyday because I want to make a difference. We are in the business to help people."
After a 1985 reorganization involving the state’s Extension Service, Roberts was assigned to do horticultural work in addition to helping all sweet potato farmers. He now also serves as parish chair for the Extension Service office in St. Landry Parish.
Roughly 35,000 to 40,000 acres of sweet potatoes were grown in St. Landry Parish in the 1940s and 1950s, but now the number has dwindled to 1,500 acres in St. Landry, Evangeline and Acadia parishes.
What has happened to sweet potato producers in St Landry and surrounding parishes in South Louisiana is a reflection of what is happening to agriculture in general," Roberts explained. "Farmers are facing increased costs of production, erratic prices at harvest, larger more specialized farms, unpredictable weather and, in some cases, trying to adjust to the demands of the consumer. As a result, profit margins continue to shrink, and farmers are being forced out of business."
For example, Roberts said nowadays a producer has to have a packing plant and storage facility with a humidifier, refrigeration unit and heater to keep products on hand to sell at the right time. With those expensive facilities, a grower can harvest a crop in the fall and sell sweet potatoes all the way through Easter, he said.
In addition to the job of providing the latest research-based information to agricultural producers, these days Roberts says he is getting a lot more requests for information from homeowners interested in such topics as urban tree care and maintenance.
"That’s just an indication of the increased population in the area and St. Landry Parish becoming more of a hub of economic growth," he said.
Roberts is married to Cassandra Kaye Roberts, and they have one daughter, Kristy, who recently graduated from Southern University with a bachelor’s degree in mass communications.