NEW ORLEANS, La. – The latest in Louisiana sweet potato research was highlighted recently as more than 375 producers, processors and industry representatives met at the 2014 U.S. Sweet Potato Council Convention.
The meeting was hosted by the Louisiana Sweet Potato Association and chaired by current National Sweet Potato Council president Ken Thornhill, who farms in Franklin Parish, La.
“It’s an opportunity; the highlight of a lifetime,” Thornhill said of his term as president. “It’s an honor to be cherished."
Thornhill has been growing sweet potatoes in Louisiana for 42 years. He currently grows 250 acres, down from an earlier high of 1,000 acres.
His operation has moved from producing the crop for the fresh market and processors to growing sweet potatoes under contract for ConAgra Lamb Weston.
“ConAgra is a major, major player in the sweet potato industry,” he said.
LSU AgCenter researcher Arthur Villordon said he is working in a “fairly new science of production,” looking at ways to better manage nitrogen fertilizer use in sweet potatoes.
Villordon, who works at the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, La., said his research is driven by increasing regulations and pressures to limit fertilizer use.
Fertilizer nutrient stewardship includes the right source at the right rate at the right time and in the right place, he said. “We need to apply stewardship, otherwise we’ll be regulated.”
It’s important, he added, not to approach nitrogen management haphazardly. “If you manage nitrogen properly, you also affect other nutrients.”
The sweet potato station employs a full complement of scientists working in areas ranging from plant breeding to post-production to supplying foundation seed, said Rogers Leonard, LSU AgCenter program leader for plants and soil sciences.
Leonard addressed the challenges of water quality and water availability throughout the United States and how they affect sweet potato production. He said the way to solve problems is through science, technology and communications.
Everyone in the industry should be aware of the Food Safety Modernization Act, he said. “At a minimum, it’s going to raise the cost of production through record keeping.”
Rex King, president of Bright Harvest Sweet Potato Company in Clarksville, Ark., said “It’s important we produce products that people will eat and enjoy. We have to assess what we’re doing and put out a product we’ll be proud of.”
Innovation is key to further sweet potato consumption, said Jim Kirkham, plant manager with ConAgra Lamb Weston in Delhi, La.
Sweet potatoes represent five percent of the food service potato category. Kirkham said. And that share grew 17 percent the past year. Sweet potatoes also represent six percent of all frozen retail potato sales.
The industry needs innovation focusing on “other flavor profiles” besides the traditional flavors to compete for consumer sales, he said.
Lamb Weston is going to continue to invest in the LSU AgCenter sweet potato team, Kirkham said.
LSU AgCenter sweet potato breeder Don LaBonte reviewed his breeding program for the audience.
His program includes early trials at the Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase along with producer plots throughout the sweet potato-growing regions of the country. He reviewed the performance of various new and experimental varieties from his plots.
“Sometimes different varieties perform differently, depending on environmental conditions,” LaBonte said. That’s why his trials are dispersed.
“We’re looking at early-maturing varieties to increase harvest timing,” he said. “And we’re looking ahead to see problems and try to answer them.”
LaBonte said he sees an opportunity to increase markets by providing different varieties for consumers.