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|Potato future sweet thanks to USDA|
Sweet potatoes are one of Louisiana's fastest growing cash crops. Now, thanks to a grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the future looks even brighter for area producers.
The USDA will provide some $2.8 million to fund a collaborative effort between the LSU AgCenter, North Carolina State University and the University of California - Davis.
According to LSU AgCenter sweet potato researcher Tara Smith, the money will be used to pay for research she said could lead to increased efficiency and quality.
"It's a multi-state, multi-discipline grant that will focus on improving production efficiency by creating modeling that producers can use to improve efficiency on their farms," said Smith. "It will be largely stakeholder driven."
Smith said stakeholders — farmers and the companies who purchase their potatoes — will provide much of the information needed by researchers.
"It was driven by their input and they will continue to play a part in the grant," said Smith.
Smith said the grant cuts across a number of disciplines and has at its end a number of goals — including post-harvest diseases that can affect sweet potatoes.
"There is also a large food safety component built into the grant to explore fungicide alternatives and to develop a comprehensive management plan in the case of any potential food safety issues," Smith said.
Though there are no food safety issues currently on sweet potato producers' radar, Smith said the industry expressed an interested in "a proactive approach to food safety."
Smith said the core focus of the grant will be aimed at solving production problems and sustainability of sweet potato crops.
Also, researchers will develop models farmers can use to aid in the decision-making process.
By creating the models, Smith contended farmers will be better equipped to decide such varying factors as when to plant and what inputs to use.
"The models will be location-specific," Smith said. "It will help producers in a specific, given geographic area."
In other words, what the models suggest for a sweet potato grower in California might not hold true for a producer in Franklin Parish.
Smith said the models might eventually become even more customized for specific farms.
Ultimately, the grant will take the research activities of extension agents and scientists and put that information into the hands of the producers, Smith said.
U.S. Rep. Rodney Alexander commended the AgCenter for the successful grant application.
Alexander pointed out the funds will be used to further the mission of the extension service.
"There are so many things that the individual farmer can't do to improve the crops," said Alexander, R-Quitman. "They physically can't do it and monetarily can't do it. It takes the research stations to do this job."
Alexander sits on the House subcommittee on agriculture. He noted Louisiana is a major agricultural state and said these types of grants are important to maintaining a competitive edge in the marketplace.
"Research is so important to us," Alexander said. "The more money we can put into that, the better off we are in the long run, whether it's helping the producers or helping the consumers."
Smith said that was the ultimate goal of the $2.8 million grant.
"If producers are successful and we are successful, the industry thrives and the industry as a whole benefits," said Smith. "But our producers have to have the information and tools they need to succeed."