Story and Photos by Bruce Shultz
HESSMER - Back in August, Ricky Juneau wished the rains from Hurricane Harvey would stop in time to start harvesting his sweet potato crop. Sure enough the rain stopped, and now he would like some of that rain to soften the soil and reduce the dust.
“A 1-inch rain would do wonders right now.”
Dust from the harvesting machine and wind creates difficult working conditions, and limits the amount of time the workers can stay on the job, Ricky said. “The dust gets up so bad they can’t see anything. If the wind doesn’t pick up, we try to make the whole day.”
Workers on the harvester sort through the potatoes and grade them according to size, shape and condition.
Tara Smith, LSU AgCenter Northeast Regional Director, said this year’s crop is somewhat delayed. “Some areas look really good with nice yields.”
But she said other areas are harvesting potatoes that have been small, so some growers are delaying the rest of their harvest until they get rain that could boost growth. “We are in droughty conditions.”
She said the warm temperatures are good for size increases, but more moisture is needed to accelerate a size increase. On the other hand, other areas that got too much rain in August and September are seeing potatoes that have rotted in the field from excess moisture.
“So far a lot of the producers have been able to dig and get some good yields,” said Myrl Sistrunk, LSU AgCenter sweet potato extension specialist. “It’s shaping up for those to be a good year.”
He said some growers are reporting yields of 600 bushels an acre or better.
He also said in some areas of the state, growers are waiting for their crop to grow before they harvest.
Sistrunk said heavy rains during the growing season probably had an effect on size, but now those same fields could use rain, he said. “Most could use an inch or an inch and a half.”
Juneau said last year’s harvest also started with heavy rainfall, he said, with continuous rainfall for two weeks. “Every afternoon we’d get a little rain.”
Juneau’s son, Cory, said growth of the potatoes was slowed by heavy rainfall early in the season. One day in April, the area got 10 inches of rain in 3 hours.
But weather is not the only problem facing growers. Selling sweet potatoes has become more of a challenge. At one time, Louisiana had at least 10 sweet potato canneries to buy Louisiana-grown product. But they have closed one-by-one, until now there are none. The closest one was a Del Monte plant in Arkansas and it shut down suddenly in September.
The Bruce Foods plant near New Iberia was bought several years ago, and closed.
Ricky said the companies that have bought the Louisiana plants for their brand names and they have shifted operations to the Carolinas. North Carolina has 96,000 acres of sweet potatoes, he said, compared to Louisiana with less than 10,000 acres.
Now the only large buyer in Louisiana is the LambWeston plant near Delhi. A neighboring grower in Avoyelles Parish, James Deshotel, arranges the truckloads to be shipped to LambWeston, Juneau said.
Currently, the Delhi plant processes large potatoes for the French fry market, but plans are being made for the facility to process potatoes for tater tots and patties, which could use any size potato, Ricky said. Officially opened in late 2010, the Delhi Plant is the world's first large-scale processing facility specifically equipped to process high-quality frozen sweet potato products.
It's the first plant of its kind in the world to achieve Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Platinum certification for its sustainable and green building design and processes. The plant's unique design provides environmental, economic and health benefits to the local community, including water conservation and a substantial reduction in energy use.
“Without them, all you’d have left is a fresh market,” Ricky said.
He has regular customers in the fresh market, mostly groceries, that buy his potatoes. But that means he has to drive a weekly route to take orders and deliver the product regularly.
There’s a market for individually wrapped potatoes for baking, and cooking in microwave ovens, as well as 3-4 pound bags, he said. “People are buying more sweet potatoes because they’re more health conscience.”
He said the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission promotes the product well with advertising but the limited acreage in Louisiana means less advertising dollars than the heavy hitters such as North Carolina. Juneau was vice president of the Avoyelles Parish Sweet Potato Growers, and he attends the state Sweet Potato Commission occasionally.
(By the way, yam is just another term for sweet potato.)
Ricky said he has been able to sell some of his crop to the Texas state prison system after Hurricane Harvey ruined a crop north of Houston. “That’s helping us a little bit.”
A couple of niche customers have developed, Cory said. A Texas company bought some of their potatoes to make smoothies, and a distillery in New Orleans has used Juneau potatoes to make vodka.
The loss of canneries has resulted in a sharp acreage reduction. At one time, several thousands of acres of potatoes were grown in Avoyelles Parish, but that dropped to 1,826 acres in 2016 with a total value of $3.5 million.
According to the LSU Ag Summary for 2016, the statewide total gross farm value for sweet potatoes was estimated at $43.5 million.
Total value of Louisiana’s sweet potato production, including value added of $32.6 million, was $76.1 million in 2016. Acreage in Louisiana’s peaked in 1935 at 123,000 acres. In 2016, the statewide acreage was 9,303. Sistrunk estimated this year’s statewide crop at 9,200 acres.
Louisiana remained fourth in sweet potato production acreage in the United States behind North Carolina, Mississippi and California.
The Juneaus have also reduced their crop to 135 acres this year.
“At one time, we were planting 700-800 acres,” Ricky said.
Avoyelles Parish had 167 farmers with sweet potato acreage. “Now we’re down to eight or nine.”
Louisiana growers have to make $15-17 for a 40-pound box, but Carolina growers can sell their product considerably cheaper, Ricky said.
The Carolina growers have the location advantage, being closer to the more populous east coast, Ricky said.
Pigweed has become the main weed problem for sweet potato growers, Ricky said. Herbicides that might kill pigweed can’t be used because they would also damage the crop, he said, so the only remedy is to pull up the weeds. If any roots remain in the soil, pigweeds grow back. “After a rain, it doesn’t look like they’ve been touched.”
The main insect problem is the cucumber beetle that feeds on the plant and ruins potatoes.
Sweet potato weevils have been a major pest that had prevented movement of areas where the insect was found, but that restriction has been lifted. But some rules remain in place. For example, shipments of potatoes cannot be trucked in areas where the weevils are currently found.
Hogs and deer also feed on potatoes. “It’s nothing for a deer to lop off a box of potatoes every night,” Cory said.
Before harvest, the plants’ vines are cut to kill the plant above the ground. Left intact, the vines would get tangled in the harvester. Cutting the vines also encourages a potato to develop tougher skin. “It basically starts curing in the ground,” Ricky said.
Small potatoes are used for bedding in February and March after the threat of frost to make plants for seed. Planting of the slips is done the first part of May.
The Juneaus are leasing a storage building and packing shed from Nelson Bordelon who has scaled back his operation.
Potatoes are stored unwashed to retain the protection provided by soil, Ricky said. “Once you wash them, they’re only good for a few weeks. As long as it stays dirty, they’ll be good until April or May. We’ve had some go to July.”
Added to the problem of losing canneries is the difficulty of hiring dependable workers willing to work for $7.50 to $11 an hour, depending on experience. Ricky has been able to keep reliable workers from Ville Platte. But he admits as they get older and stop working, it’s almost impossible to find replacements. Most potato farmers have started using imported labor, he said.
Usually about 14 workers are needed on a two-row harvester to grade and sort the potatoes. They can cover 3 acres a day in a 10-hour day.
Harvesting is naturally inefficient as the machine digs up the tubers. Roughly 50-60 percent is left in the ground, Ricky said. “There’s a lot you’re going to leave behind.”
Cory estimates that of the harvested potatoes, about two-thirds are boxed for sale.
“It’s not how many potatoes you put in that bin, it’s how many you put in that box.”
Ricky got started growing sweet potatoes after graduating from Hessmer High School, farming with his father-in-law, Earl Roy, in 1977. He started farming on his own in 2008.
Cory was attending the University of Louisiana at Lafayette when he decided to join Ricky in the fields.
“Now I’m playing in the dirt,” Cory said.
Cory, 31, said he can count on one hand the number of farmers his age. “Every other farmer I know is over 50 years old.”
In addition to growing potatoes, Ricky and Cory have a herd of commercial cattle, along with custom hay baling and a dirt work business.
Justin Dufour, LSU AgCenter county agent in Avoyelles Parish, said Ricky is respected in the community. “He’s very active in the community with 4-H and livestock shows.”
Ricky and his wife, Celia, ran a Little League program in the Hessmer area for 9 years for kids ages 6-18. “It’s all about the kids, not the parents,” Ricky explained.
Ricky also served a term on the Avoyelles Parish School Board, and he’s planning to run for the office again next year. Ricky said he also followed in his father’s footsteps by planting potatoes.
“It’s a good life. It’s just the obstacles that get in the way.”