LSU AgCenter research station helps lure ConAgra Lamb Weston’s new sweet potato processing plant to northeast Louisiana

LSU AgCenter scientists played a key role in helping to entice ConAgra Foods to locate a new sweet potato processing plant to northeast Louisiana.

ConAgra’s Lamb Weston division, which is based in Washington state, has decided to build a state-of-the-art plant near Delhi to take advantage of Louisiana’s sweet potato crop, which is purported to be the best-tasting in the country.

The plant, whose exact location is still not known, is scheduled to open in the fall of 2010 and initially employ 275 people at an average salary of about $35,000 per year.

But company officials said they also chose the location to be in close collaboration with the researchers and extension specialists at the nearby Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, which is the only facility of its kind in the United States.
“North Carolina produces more sweet potatoes than we do,” said Tara Smith, extension specialist and coordinator of the Sweet Potato Station. “But ours are generally recognized and marketed as the best-tasting in the country.”

Louisiana has about 15,000 acres in sweet potatoes, compared to nearly 45,000 in North Carolina. Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and Texas also produce sweet potatoes in the southeastern United States. The ConAgra Lamb Weston facility expects to source more than half of their product needs from Louisiana producers but will also work closely with producers in other states.

Three LSU AgCenter scientists have been working with members of the Lamb Weston research and development staff for a couple of years.

In addition to Smith, Don LaBonte, a sweet potato breeder, and David Picha, who conducts research on processing and post-harvest physiology of sweet potatoes, have been meeting with Lamb Weston officials.

LaBonte is working to develop a new variety of sweet potato with a tougher skin so it can withstand the rigors of more mechanization in harvesting and processing. Sweet potato production is more labor-intensive than many other crops.
“A sweet potato is more egg-like, more delicate, than a russet potato,” LaBonte said. “It’s more easily bruised, which can cause disease problems in storage and during shipment.”

Chris Clark, an LSU AgCenter plant pathologist who specializes in sweet potato diseases, is helping develop sweet potatoes that are more disease-resistant.
In addition to having a tougher skin and more disease resistance, the new variety has to maintain the sweetness and uniform rich-orange color of Louisiana sweet potatoes. Its physiology has to perform well when frozen and when cooked. Lamb Weston markets its frozen sweet potato products to restaurants through its Sweet Things brand and to grocery stores through its Alexia brand.

Lamb Weston operates frozen food processing plants in the Pacific Northwest, Minnesota and Canada. Some Louisiana growers already have contracts with the company to ship their sweet potatoes to these plants.

“The acknowledgment that the research station contributed to the decision to locate in Louisiana is an example of an institution of higher education, the LSU AgCenter, fueling economic development in our state. The products developed in the plant will provide value-added income to the sweet potato industry,” said David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research.

“This station is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year and has a worldwide reputation for excellence in research and outreach to the sweet potato industry,” he said.

Other members of the LSU AgCenter sweet potato research team include Arthur Villordon at the Sweet Potato Station, Donnie Miller and Eugene Burris at the Northeast Research Station in St. Joseph, Abner Hammond and Richard Story in the Department of Entomology, and Donald Ferrin in the Department of Plant Pathology & Crop Physiology.
“Although sweet potatoes can be highly profitable, they are difficult to grow,” said Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for extension. “Our extension agents work closely with the sweet potato growers to help them solve problems and follow the best management practices.”

Extension specialists Myrl Sistrunk in West Carroll Parish and Vincent Deshotel in St. Landry Parish are among the agents who focus educational efforts on sweet potato growers.

Sweet potatoes contribute nearly $50 million to the state’s economy, on average, each year. Two of the three most popular varieties in the country were developed at the LSU AgCenter, Beauregard and Evangeline. The third is Covington, which was developed in North Carolina and mainly grown in that state.

“The new sweet potato processing plant will help increase income to farmers and increase sustainable acreage in sweet potato production statewide,” Coreil said.

Linda Foster Benedict

(This article was published in the summer 2009 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

8/24/2009 11:48:00 PM
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