(Jan. 28) Baton Rouge, La. — Louisiana sweet potato growers can now apply for federal disaster loans to help them rebound from devastating water damage last year.

Meanwhile, sweet potato grower-shippers in neighboring Mississippi are still searching for ways to stay in business in wake of severe losses. Damage from Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili as well as rains during October and November caused large losses to Louisiana’s $103 million sweet potato industry.

On Jan. 22, Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman designated counties in Iowa, Louisiana, Montana and South Carolina as agriculture disaster areas. Her decision means that sweet potato growers in Louisiana will also receive federal loans through the Farm Service Agency.

Stevin Westcott, public affairs officer for FSA, said the Emergency Loan Program provides money to restore property and pay all or part of production costs associated with the disaster year. Westcott said growers also could pay essential family living expenses, reorganize their farming operation and refinance certain debts.

Only those growers that suffered at least a 30% loss in crop production and can prove an ability to repay the loan may qualify.

Louisiana Gov. Mike Foster issued an executive order, declaring 20 parishes a disaster area. Bob Odom, commissioner of agriculture and forestry, followed with a request to the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission for a reduction in grower fees.

On Jan. 21, the commission announced that it had approved a 25% reduction in the state fees that growers must pay for marketing and weevil reduction.

“I realize many of you may have lost considerably more than 25%,” Odom said in a letter to growers informing them of the fee reduction, “but we must address the situation as to what will best serve the industry as a whole.”

MISSISSIPPI

Bush also declared a major disaster for Mississippi on Oct. 1, and Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove immediately requested $15.3 million in federal disaster assistance, but no information was available from USDA officials on the status of Mississippi sweet potato growers.

Benny Graves, executive secretary for the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Vardaman, said the storms destroyed at least 50% of the state’s sweet potato production for 2002.

“Growers in the hill country had most of their crop already in their sheds by the time the storms hit,” Graves said. “But other growers on the delta lost 90% or more of their crop.”

Tim Edmundson, manager at Edmundson Farms, Vardaman, said the total damage still wasn’t visible.

“Right now the sweet potatoes are in our sheds looking just like they should, but when it comes time to actually pack them out, we may have to toss away as much as 30% of the packout just to maintain quality.”

DEVASTATED

One group of delta growers, the Sweet Potato Growers Association, has been devastated by the loss. The group consists of 28 African-American growers on 900 acres in Mound Bayou, Miss.

“The sweet potato harvest represents their primary cash crop for the year,” said Moses Lewis Jr., chief operations officer. Moses said his growers lost nearly all of the 2002 crop.

“Without funds from this association,” Lewis said, “these growers won’t survive.”

Glory Foods, Columbus, Ohio, guaranteed the initial planting for the association in 1995 and has marketed the association’s fresh sweet potatoes under the Glory Foods label ever since.

Lewis estimates this year’s losses at more than $1 million.

The association launched a national appeal for funds to help its growers recoup from last year’s losses. With lenders steering clear, Lewis said the association would probably be the grower’s only source for this year’s seed, fuel and fertilizer.

Donations in check or money order form may be mailed to: Sweet Potato Fund c/o Bank of Bolivar; 202 N. Edwards St.; Mound Bayou, MS 38762.