Linda Benedict, Labonte, Don R.
There is nothing more satisfying to a sweet potato grower than a new variety that has a 10 percent yield gain, is easier to grow at no extra cost, and resists damage from drought and flooding. Because the industry continues to face stagnating prices and escalating production costs, a new variety can signal renewal. This has been happening since the beginning of the sweet potato research program at the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station in the 1930s.
For many years sweet potato consumption was flat, even though the sweet potato, rich in vitamin A and other nutrients, was one of the best-tasting and healthiest vegetables on the market. In recent years, however, this has changed as Americans have become more concerned with health and nutrition issues. Just go to a local or national chain restaurant, and you are bound to find sweet potato fries and baked sweet potato on the menu – a big change in a relatively short period of time. Exports are up, too. Consumers in Europe have discovered this vegetable and like it.
The demands on the breeding program have changed, too. Louisiana is now the hub of the frozen sweet potato french fry business with the establishment of the ConAgra sweet potato processing plant at Delhi, La., in 2010. The need for varieties well-suited for the fresh market may not fit demanding processing specifications. AgCenter sweet potato breeders now need to develop varieties for the fresh market and other ones for the processing sector. Both require high yields, disease resistance and a good shape.
The AgCenter has added new nurseries over the years to deal with special needs like better processing quality and enhancing resistance to a given disease. As the costs of a sweet potato breeding program have increased, so has the funding model – and this is something national and not just in Louisiana. Years ago breeders simply released varieties to the public – no strings attached. Now, however, state support is diminishing, and federal dollars are more skewed toward short-term competitive grants. Breeding sweet potatoes is methodical and requires sustained, long-term funding.
Today’s funding reality requires that licensing fees be charged for the use of new varieties to sustain the breeding program. The need for revenue has expanded the breeding program beyond the Louisiana borders. Many new varieties are now screened in other states for production. For instance, a red-skinned selection is being evaluated in California and shows promise. Although this skin color is not popular in the Gulf South, it has a following on the West Coast. So, instead of a selection heading to oblivion in Louisiana, it is now going out of state. This out-of-state testing also provides valuable feedback on performance that testing in-state does not. Yes, the program at the AgCenter exists to service Louisiana growers, but having out-of-state growers contribute makes for a stronger program.
AgCenter varieties are grown in many foreign countries as well. For instance, in Australia and New Zealand, the most popular variety grown is Beauregard, which was released by the AgCenter in 1987. Yet, the AgCenter has never received a penny in royalty income for Beauregard because procedures to capture the value of sweet potato varieties were not in place at that time.
Louisiana growers support the AgCenter research program with checkoff funds, and many times this has meant the dif ference in being able to continue the breeding program. Still, growers sometimes ask why they must pay a licensing fee for certain varieties. The answer is if they don’t recoup a modest licensing cost plus a whole lot more, then they probably won’t grow the variety.
The LSU AgCenter is also expanding partnerships with industry. A little known fact is that many restaurant chains and processors want their own variety and one their competitors don’t have. It is a common and successful model used by many in the food industry. AgCenter scientists now breed and select unique varieties for private entities such as ConAgra. This company came to Louisiana for many reasons, and one was the sweet potato research and extension infrastructure at the AgCenter. Because of the needs of ConAgra’s frozen sweet potato fry facility in Delhi, the AgCenter breeding program is developing varieties that resist skinning, can be harvested more quickly and resist storage damage.
The future of the breeding program is more assured by incorporating the licensing of intellectual property.
Don LaBonte is a professor and head of the School of Plant, Soil and Environmental Sciences and is the chief sweet potato breeder.
(This article was published in the fall 2012 issue of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.)