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Living the Louisiana sweet potato life

Despite suffering some weather-related setbacks in 2018, the future looks sweet for Louisiana sweet potatoes, with both pricing and consumption expected to rise in 2019.

The 2018 crop is still in storage, marketing and selling. That crop is expected to last through June or July, with the 2019 crop beginning harvesting in September, ensuring a virtual year-round supply of Louisiana sweet potatoes.

SweetPotatoBrochure v5---FILES-FOR-PRINTER3 “There was too much rain in 2018,” René Simon, director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Advertising and Development Commission in Baton Rouge, LA, told The Produce News. “Everyone had a rough harvest. Most of the farmers were able to get most of their crop in, while some weren’t able to harvest parts of their crop. But even the farmers that got to harvest all of their crops had to leave sweet potatoes in the field because they were rotting from too much rain.”

The impact of a wet summer was not limited to just Louisiana sweet potatoes, but felt across the South with farmers in Mississippi, Arkansas and the Carolinas also reporting bad crops. “We are seeing an increase in price this year compared to last year — $2 to $3 a box more — just because the bad crop hit us all. And we’re hoping that the price can get a little higher, into the low $20’s per box,” Simon said, adding that the higher wholesale and corresponding retails are not expected to scare off consumers.

“Our research shows that people aren’t real sensitive to price,” Simon said. “It is not like sweet potatoes are going to go from 99-cents a pound to $4. They might go from 99-cents to $1.20 and people will still buy three or four sweet potatoes to fulfill their needs.”

Consumers are increasingly recognizing the health benefits of sweet potatoes, also helping to boost consumption. “Sweet potatoes are one of those great superfoods, high in fiber, beta carotene, low in carbs and calories. People are not just eating sweet potatoes for the great taste, but also for their nutritional aspects,” Simon said.

And researchers and consumers are continually finding new uses for them.

“People are making vodka out of sweet potatoes now and they are putting them in breakfast bars and smoothies. People keep finding different ways to use them,” Simon said.

That is good news because sweet potatoes are big business in The Pelican State; sweet potatoes are its largest vegetable crop, farmed on some 9,200 acres in 2018.

“We’re expected to probably see a decrease in some of that acreage this year, just because of the bad harvest season in 2018 farmers are planting less,” Simon said. Most farmers follow a two or three-year rotation schedule, rotating their sweet potato fields with soybeans, corn, and increasingly sorghum, also known as milo.

Orleans and Beauregard are the predominant sweet potato varieties grown in Louisiana, although the white-fleshed Bonita and purple skinned Murasaki are gaining popularity as niche products, grown on limited acreage.

However, Simon does not see organic sweet potatoes taking root in Louisiana. “With our growing conditions, any organic production is limited,” he said. “Louisiana is hot and wet and everything grows here, including insects and other plant pests.”

One of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission’s tasks is to promote consumption. “Our growers and processors, like Lamb Weston, pay a tax into the Commission that is mandated by law. Half of the money raised goes towards advertising and half goes towards research,” Simon said.

There are numerous recipes on the Commission’s www.sweetpotato.org website designed to increase consumption and turn sweet potatoes into more of a year-round mainstay. “In the summer, sweet potatoes can be sliced into thick discs and placed on the grill with a little olive oil, salt and pepper, and rosemary or other herbs. They make a wonderful presentation with the sear marks on them from the grill,” Simon said. “Here in Louisiana, we’re trying to get people to put them in their seafood, crawfish and crab boils; instead of using a white potato, put a sweet potato in there. It will give you a nice, little sweet flavor when you are eating all of that spice.”

Retailers can do their part to boost year-round consumption too.

“We are trying to get retailers to take sweet potatoes out of that bottom shelf and dirty bin. Put them in a little more prominent area, lift them up so they are at least waist-high and clean out the bins,” Simon said.

“Sometimes nothing more than just cleaning out the bins can boost sales. Every once in a while, run a little bit of a special promotion on sweet potatoes. Just give them a little more prominent area some of the time and you’ll see increased traffic.”

In mid-January the United States Sweet Potato Council Meeting was held in New Orleans. “We had great attendance from all over the country, and we even had several international visitors,” Simon said, noting that 13-14-percent of the U.S. crop is exported to Europe.

“They are learning to grow sweet potatoes in Spain, Portugal and even France now. I was even talking to one farmer who is growing a couple of acres of sweet potatoes in Norway. He puts them in the ground in mid-May and harvests them in September. People all over the world are realizing how nutritious, delicious and versatile sweet potatoes are, and everybody is looking for something a little bit different,” Simon said.