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Sweet potato crop produces little reason for thanks

BATON ROUGE, La. — Sweet potatoes are a Thanksgiving favorite, but Louisiana sweet potato farmers don't have much of a crop to be thankful for. Usually by this time of the year most farmers have finished harvesting the crop, but nearly 50 percent of it remains in the field. Because of continuous rains, farmers aren't able to harvest — and the rain is affecting the quality of the potatoes.

"The heavy rainfalls saturate the soil, and the water drives all of the air out of the soil," said LSU AgCenter sweet potato expert Mike Cannon.

When this happens, the starch in the potatoes converts to ethanol — spoiling the potatoes, Cannon explained, adding that farmers often may not realize this until after they've invested the time and expense in harvesting.

"Growers have to ask if it's going to be worthwhile to go into the field, spend the money to put that crop in storage and then lose some percentage of it — whether half or one-third or all of the crop," said Cannon, who also is research coordinator for the LSU AgCenter's Sweet Potato Research Station at Chase, La. "It's going to be a gamble even if we can get back in the field to harvest the crop."

That's the dilemma Avoyelles Parish sweet potato farmer Johnny Roy is facing. He has 200 acres of sweet potatoes left in the field, and he hopes he can salvage about 50 acres.

"In this particular field you dig one plant and the potatoes look good. You dig another plant, you find some sour ones. Then you dig another plant and half of them are rotten," Roy said.

Roy estimates he will lose $250,000 on sweet potatoes this year. And he said he believes other farmers in the area will be forced out of the business.

Despite the losses, however, Roy says Thanksgiving tables will have sweet potatoes on them.

"Right now we have enough supply for Thanksgiving, but Easter is going to be a problem," he said.

And losing out on next year's Easter business has serious, long-term consequences, Cannon said.

"Retailers will go to other sources, such as California and North Carolina," Cannon said. "Once we lose those markets, it's hard to gain them back."

Sweet potato production and processing meant nearly $103 million to Louisiana's economy last year.

This year, LSU AgCenter experts say, farmers are likely to lose as much as $25 million — nearly half the $62 million they received for their part in the production cycle last year. Worse yet, since sweet potato production and processing are labor-intensive, this year's crop losses also have meant lost work for those involved in the industry.

Tobie Blanchard writes for the LSU AgCenter.

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