Sweet potato producers harvesting some waiting for rain

Kenneth Gautreaux, Sistrunk, Myrl W.

News Release Distributed 10/22/15

WISNER, La. – Louisiana sweet potato producers have seen both ends of the spectrum in terms of the weather this year. An unusually wet spring delayed planting and has evolved into an exceptionally dry fall that has caused some growers to halt their harvest and wait for rain.

“This may be one of the driest seasons in the last 43 years that I have experienced. What remains to be harvested is dryland, and we are dependent upon on a rain,” said Ken Thornhill.

Thornhill grows approximately 250 acres of sweet potatoes near Wisner in Franklin Parish. This amount is down significantly from a peak of nearly 1,000 acres. According to Thornhill, his drop in acreage is attributed primarily to his status as being a “semi-retired” farmer.

Because sweet potatoes are dug from the soil by a mechanical harvester, soil conditions play a factor in the harvesting process. Thornhill has harvested all of his acreage that is irrigated. His remaining acreage is simply too dry to harvest. Dry conditions are hard on both the potatoes and the people harvesting them.

“The potatoes tend to skin up and bruise very badly. The dust conditions are intolerable for the labor,” Thornhill said.

According to Myrl Sistrunk, state sweet potato specialist for the LSU AgCenter, the wet spring has spread the harvest out across the state. He knows producers are anxious to get their crops in before weather becomes an issue.

“We haven’t seen a frost yet, that’s still to come,” Sistrunk said. “Historically, we’ve had some wet falls. Basically, growers know that there is a window out there that is going to close at some point.”

There are two sweet potato growing regions in the state. One is in the south-central area, and the other is in the northeastern corner. The majority of production occurs in the northeastern section.

Louisiana has seen its sweet potato acreage decrease from more than 25,000 acres to as low as 7,500 acres. This year, Sistrunk has seen an uptick in acreage and sees potential for more growth.

“We’re up about a thousand acres from last year. We’re right about 9,500 acres,” he said. “There may be some growth for the coming year that I’m hearing about, so maybe we can reach that 10,000 acres next year.”

Louisiana sweet potatoes are grown for two primary markets: the fresh market and for processing. Much of the processing is in the form of sweet potato fries at the ConAgra facility near Dunn in Richland Parish.

Sweet potatoes are one of the riskier crops to grow because of the high amount of labor costs involved in both planting and harvesting the crop. On average, sweet potato farmers spend about $4,000 an acre.

Sistrunk expects yields to be near or slightly down from to last year’s crop. He attributes any reduction in yield to some growers planting late because of the wet spring.

Sistrunk said the price growers are receiving for their crop is nearly the same as last year. “Unfortunately, prices are flat for both the fresh market and the processing side.”

The forecast calls for beneficial rain during the early part of next week, which will allow producers to get back in their fields when they dry enough to allow the machines to harvest.

Craig Gautreaux
10/22/2015 11:40:58 PM
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