Barring hurricanes, buyers should expect regular volumes of Louisiana sweet potatoes this season, with fully cured product available in late September.

Growers began pulling product from the ground in late August, and quick-cured sweet potatoes should be available from some shippers in early September.

The state planted about 15,000 acres this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, about the same amount as last year. Last year, however, the state was ravaged by hurricanes Gustav and Ike, which dumped 36 inches of rain on some areas and ruined up to half the crop.

A normal crop this year should allow companies to get back into a 12-month marketing routine, shippers said. The state overwhelmingly leans toward the beauregard variety, although some shippers are planting up to 20% of their land in the evangeline variety.

As of mid-August, the season was looking favorable, said Wayne Garber, partner in Garber Farms Inc., Iota, La.

“The planting season turned a little dry at the end of it,” Garber said. “The quality of the plants looks exceptional this year.”

Because of the drier weather, the soil remained looser around the plants, which will help the sweet potatoes have a more uniform shape, with smooth skin, he said.

“When the soils aren’t subject to compaction, especially that caused by heavy rains, the sweet potatoes take on a gorgeous shape,” he said. “It’s a double-edged sword, because we had to irrigate and put more work into the crop early, but late in the season it really helps.”

Garber Farms planted 1,200 acres this year, about the same as last year. The shipper will have sweet potatoes to ship from partner growers, as well, who have another 5,000 acres of product.

For Earl Roy Sweet Potato Co. Inc., Hessmer, La., planting conditions were ideal this year. The season was hot and dry in June, but rains came after that, said Johnny Roy, manager.
“On a scale of one to 10, we had a seven for our growing season,” Roy said.

Roy was set to begin harvest in mid-August, and to have quick-cured sweet potatoes available Aug. 24. Quick-curing involves heating the sweet potatoes to 80 degrees and storing for five days at high humidity, which sets the skin.

Roy said traditionally cured sweet potatoes would be available by the end of September. Roy’s plantings are down by about 50 acres, he said. The company put 400 acres in the ground, and will sell for other growers who have a combined 1,500 acres, he said.

Because of a lack of water and funding, Thornhill Farms LLC, Wisner, La., had to slash acreage by a third, from about 1,000 acres last year to about 700 this year, said Shaun Thornhill, vice president.

Because of the dry weather, Thornhill Farms’ sweet potatoes were planted only on irrigated land under pivots.

“This is the first year we’ve had round sweet potato fields,” Thornhill said. “A lot of the big growers I know are having similar problems. We’ll have an adequate to large crop. The yields are looking better than expected.”

While it was dry in June, rains in July have helped the growing process, he said.

For all Louisiana sweet potato growers, a lack of labor continues to be an issue, said Tara Smith, Louisiana State University’s AgCenter sweet potato specialist/research coordinator.

About 40% of a grower’s input costs are related to labor, Smith said. Because of this, the industry is striving to move to mechanization of the harvest.

“Scientists are working in that direction, looking at different cultural practices and breeding programs for roots that might be more amenable to mechanized harvesting,” she said.
Smith said she has talked to a lot of growers, who report that the crop was generally planted on time and has good stands.

“Given the year we’re coming off of, we’re pleased with where we are,” she said.