STORY BY Rebecca Buchanan and Neil Melancon
A Thanksgiving staple is having trouble making it to dinner in south Louisiana this season.
A mix of drought and rain has sweet potato farmers struggling through a late harvest.
Farmer Larry Fontenot with E&L Produce said here at the end of the growing season, the beginning and middle part of the crop year was rough.
“In the prime growing season, he lost 45 to 60 days of growth,” Fontenot said. “At the beginning of September, we were estimating about a 350 bushel yield, which is not enough for us to bring in and sustain our farm.”
Fontenot said he and many other sweet potato farmers in south Louisiana, took a gamble, holding off on harvesting most of their crop in hopes of better conditions.
“We went from 120 days of drought, to field saturation in 48 hours,” he said. “We went from a slow-paced harvest, but were advancing, to where in the last two weeks we haven’t harvested anything at all.”
Muddy conditions make harvesting difficult, but they have to get the potatoes out of the field because the drought, followed by a foot of rain, is what Fontenot calls a “recipe for a rotten potato.
“They’re still holding on, they’re not rotting and so far we think we’re ok,” he said. “You will have some loss, you will have some decay. Unfortunately, with the dry conditions so bad, now the wet conditions have made it worse.”
With one-third of south Louisiana’s sweet potatoes still in the ground, Fontenot is getting nervous they won’t get the potatoes out in time.
“November is always a busy time at a packing shed because the Thanksgiving holiday is the biggest movement of sweet potatoes,” Fontenot said. “Everybody needs to get what they have left in the field, bring it back into the house and sell it. You can’t afford to lose a third of your crop, not with the production costs as high as they are this year.”
The weather and cost of production aren’t the only challenges for sweet potato farmers this year, either. Stacks of sweet potatoes, from floor to ceiling, line Fontenot’s shed after the last sweet potato processing plant closed this year.
“We’re scared, as we’re having to store sweet potatoes that normally we don’t store this time of the year,” he said. “That plant took about 45 percent of the potatoes that’s grown on this farm and other farms that’s like ours.”
As a result, Fontenot cut his sweet potato production from more than 200 acres, to about 120.
“We have been able to get contracts with the French fry facility in Delhi,” he said. “I don’t know what we’re going to do next year, though.”