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La. potato growers: How Sweet it is!

Thornhill, who raises 930 acres of sweet potatoes near Wisner, said some growers are harvesting a bumper crop – although others aren't doing quite as well because of inclement weather earlier in the growing season. But either way, the overall crop is significantly better than last year.

The effects of Tropical Storm Isidore and Hurricane Lili in 2002 turned a promising crop into a poor one, and sweet potato farmers felt the pinch. So they are looking for better yields this year.

"I would call it overall a very good crop," Thornhill said of the 2003 harvest. "Prices are beautiful. We're enjoying it."

Further south in Avoyelles Parish, sweet potato growers are even happier.

In addition to the storms of 2002, Central Louisiana farmers suffered the results of pre-harvest rains in 2001 and a devastating weevil infestation in 2000 on the heels of two years of drought.

"The past five years were a disaster," said James Deshotel, who raises 500 acres of sweet potatoes near Bunkie. "We were due for one good year."

Sweet potato harvest is approaching 70 percent completion across Louisiana.

"The crop and production are good," said Mike Cannon, LSU AgCenter sweet potato specialist and resident coordinator of the AgCenter's Sweet Potato Research Station at Chase.

Cannon called 2003 one of those years with a combination of good yields and good prices. "The crop and production are good. The quality is good. And the price is excellent," he said.

Cannon said Avoyelles Parish had a drought period from mid-April to early June, but the rest of the state didn't have the same problem.

For the later plantings, yields were "really, really good," he said. "The weather was right for high yields and good quality."

The LSU AgCenter expert characterized the 2003 crop as "not outstanding, but a good yield statewide." Yields were better in the northeastern part of the state, which had "almost ideal weather with not extreme temperatures," he said.

Nationally, sweet potato farmers had a poor crop last year, so there wasn't much carryover to this year. That strengthened prices, Cannon said. Some growers harvested early, sacrificing higher yields for good early-season prices.

Cannon said he expects current prices to remain fairly steady. "It's sizing up to be a good year," he said.

Carl Ducote, who raises 135 acres of sweet potatoes near Bunkie, agrees.

Ducote said this year's crop is "real good quality. The fields are clean with no insect damage at all.

"Pricewise, it's very, very good," he added.

Ducote said he's in no hurry to sell this year. He said he expects to start packing sweet potatoes to market for Thanksgiving about Nov. 10.

Earnest Freeman, LSU AgCenter county agent in Avoyelles Parish, said Ducote is among many growers who are in no hurry to sell this year.

"They know if they keep them until January, they'll have a market," he said.

Deshotel, on the other hand, isn't waiting.

"I want to sell everything I can now," Deshotel said, expressing a different approach from many other growers.

But even so, he expects to be selling sweet potatoes until spring. "We're storing what we can't sell," he said.

Rick Bogren is a writer for the LSU AgCenter.

e-mail: [email protected]

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