Sweet potato farmers battle rain, attrition

A decade of wet weather has taken its toll on the state’s sweet potato industry, and the number of farmers who grow the expensive, labor-intensive crop has dwindled despite the potential for a healthy profit in a good year.

The LSU AgCenter reports there are about 7,500 acres in sweet potatoes this year, down 25 percent from last year and half of what was planted 10 years ago. The state’s 49 producers are less than a third of their number in 2003.

While farmers say the ConAgra Lamb Weston sweet potato processing facility in Delhi has provided a reliable market for growers in the northern part of the state, it hasn’t changed the overall trajectory of the state’s 12th largest crop.

“We had a lot of older growers who simply had no one to carry on as they retired,” said Ken Thornhill, who farms 250 acres south of Winnsboro, a far cry from the 1,000 acres he farmed in 2008.

“We just haven’t had an influx of new growers,” said Tara Smith, coordinator of the AgCenter’s Sweet Potato Research Station. “We’ve had a couple over the years, but the guys in business that are sweet potato farmers in Louisiana have been doing it for years.”

Sweet potatoes are not a major player in state’s agricultural economy, making up only about 1 percent of the total value. But for those who grow the high-risk, high-reward crop, the last decade has not been kind. Seven of the last 10 seasons have been wet, which causes the crop to rot in the fields.

“Once it rots, it’s gone. It’s not going to regrow itself,” said Larry Fontenot, who runs E&L Produce with his 88-year-old father, Earl Fontenot Jr., in Washington, about 45 minutes north of Lafayette.

“The last 10 years,” he explained, “have been kind of a repeat of crop failures or just adequate yields to break even but nothing to offset the losses that we’ve had.”

The bad years restrict cash flow and increase the amount of debt a farmer needs to manage.

The Fontenots will have 220 acres planted for the 2013 crop, less than half of what they had a decade ago.

“The lack of finances caused us to have to reduce our acreage,” Fontenot said.

Another factor is the overproduction of a newer, more popular Covington variety in the Carolinas, which has overshadowed the aging Beauregard variety produced in Louisiana.

“It just genetically deteriorated on us,” Thornhill said.

The Covington “is where we were in the late ’80s with the Beauregards,” he said. “It just produces more No. 1-shaped potatoes.”

No. 1’s are crucial for the fresh market, which consists of grocery stores, produce stands and farmers markets.

In the Beauregard’s early days, “you could pack 70 percent No. 1’s,” Thornhill said. “Now you’re lucky to get 50 percent No. 1’s.”

That oversupply has helped drive down prices. Smith said farmers are getting less for a high-grade sweet potato than they did 20 years ago.

Changing tastes also have edged unripened “green” sweet potatoes out of the fresh market. Fontenot, 57, said years ago you could pull them out of the ground and sell them at the market without the expense of quick-curing or kiln-drying the potatoes to convert the starch to sugar.

In 1981, “we were selling them all green. But the kiln-dried product is a better and more consistent product,” he conceded.

At about $4,000 per acre, sweet potatoes are an expensive crop to grow, and labor is about 40 percent of the total cost.

“The way I like to put it to people is there’s a pair of hands that comes in contact with every sweet potato that goes on every plate,” Smith said. “That’s a lot of people and that directly translates into a lot of money.”

Sweet potato farming also requires expensive equipment, which Smith said acts as a barrier to entry for younger farmers.

“I’d hate to guess,” Thornhill said when asked what it might take to get a new operation off the ground. “Refrigeration, storage, packaging lines, harvesters and 1,001 little things that you’d never consider. It’s very expensive to get started in sweet potatoes.”

“A lot of young farmers today are growing things that don’t require much hassle, like soybeans or corn,” Smith said, noting those commodities are fetching a good price right now. “You don’t just get into the sweet potato business overnight.”

Processing plant

One significant development for the sweet potato business has been the opening of ConAgra and Lamb Weston’s $156 million sweet potato processing and packaging facility in November 2010.

The plant, which received $37 million in state funding and added 275 jobs to the northeast Louisiana economy, has surpassed the $8.4 million in payroll requirements with its $10.2 million total, Louisiana Economic Development Secretary Stephen Moret said.

Thornhill, Fontenot and Smith all said the Delhi plant has been beneficial to the industry, though there is one important caveat. The plant can only accept sweet potatoes from the northeast part of the parish, where about 70 percent of sweet potatoes are grown. South, central and northwest Louisiana are prohibited because of the sweetpotato weevil. Thornhill’s farm can supply the plant; Fontenot’s cannot.

Fontenot said that even though he can’t send his product to the plant, it does create space in the fresh market by diverting product from other producers to the plant.

Thornhill had been working with ConAgra since 2008, when he shipped his sweet potatoes to Washington state. After the Delhi facility opened, half of Thornhill’s crop went to the Delhi plant to process into sweet potato fries, and last year that was 75 percent.

This year, none of his crop is destined for the fresh market.

Despite the impact the plant has had, Thornhill said it hasn’t been enough to offset the broader market and natural forces affecting the sweet potato business.

“It hasn’t to this point,” he said. “Should we see McDonald’s and all those (fast-food restaurants) start serving sweet potato fries … you could see a tremendous increase here. Until that happens, I see the status quo.”

Thornhill said his only regret about the plant is that growers in south Louisiana can’t supply it because of the weevil restriction. He said he thinks the ban is antiquated and notes the sweetpotato weevil is an easy pest to control.

Smith said the industry has looked into finding ways to incorporate cost-saving methods of growing and harvesting regular potatoes, but the two crops are different in almost every way. They require different storing temperatures and sweet potatoes bruise more easily, which means more manual labor.

“The only thing that is similar between a white potato and sweet potato is the word ‘potato’,” she said.

Positive movement

Still, Smith said, there are a lot of positive trends in the industry. Growers are working with a new variety, Orleans, which is more consistent and has a higher yield than the Beauregard.

The health and nutritional benefits of sweet potatoes are becoming more widely known, and consumption is up 34 percent in the past 10 years.

Ten years ago, only about a third of Louisiana sweet potatoes went to the so-called canning market. Now it’s almost half.

Smith said the AgCenter’s efforts to attract new blood has generated a lot of interest, “but not a lot of people have jumped in.”

Fontenot urges anyone getting into sweet potato farming to start small and make sure to have a market. While a crop like soybeans, for example, can always be sold at the grain elevator, “if you don’t have a market for that sweet potato, you can watch them sprout and rot in the shed and you can’t do a darn thing about it.”

Fontenot said he still approaches each season with a sense of optimism. “It’s too big of an animal to not approach that way.”

Of the weather, he said: “That’s something that God sends us and we just try to deal with it the best we can.

“God’s going to take care of us and we’re going to be successful with what we do. Last year was a good year; it worked out. A good year for us is you pay all of your expenses and have some profit left over to pay old debt or reinvest or update some of your equipment. We’re hoping 2013 will be the same.”

Thornhill has a son and a daughter, though neither of them will follow him into the business. His son is currently working on his first novel.

“Hopefully, there will be a renter come in behind me and maybe I can help him out,” he said, pausing. “But there probably won’t be anyone to follow me.

“It’s hard to see the future,” he added, “but I’m trying to be encouraging.”