The state of Louisiana has banned the entry of sweet potatoes from the states of North Carolina, South Carolina and Florida effective immediately because of the presence of Guava Root Knot Nematode found in those areas. In a directive sent out to growers in the last week, the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry declared that the nematode had been found within the state and was in the process of quarantining it. In a precautionary move, the state's Commissioner of Agriculture issued the directive in order to prevent any further breaches.
"Somebody brought sweet potatoes infested with the Guava Nematode into Louisiana and it has contaminated one of the fields," said Brian Barham of Bonne Idee Produce in Bonita, Louisiana. "This is of great concern to Louisiana growers because the nematode is not present in the state. The good news is that they know which field it is in and are currently quarantining it with the view to eradicate it. In the meantime, the state has decided to cease all shipments of sweet potatoes from those affected states into Louisiana to prevent any chance of further infestation. The nematode can also affect other vegetable crops as well as high-value commodities including sugarcane, cotton and soybeans, it's just that it shows up very clearly on sweet potatoes."
Currently, the ban is indefinite and it's unknown whether it affects any other states.
Louisiana sweet potato harvest starting very slowly
Meanwhile, the Louisiana sweet potato harvest is on and progress has been slow. Cool and wet weather has made getting into the fields very difficult. Although not directly affected by any of the hurricanes this season so far, parts of Louisiana have had just as much rain as many hurricane-affected regions in the past two weeks. Barham estimates that the crop is only about 20 percent harvested, when at this time last year it was over half.
"Our harvest started two weeks ago and we haven't done very much," he shared. "We have had 8" or 9" of rain since the harvest started. It's good to have a small amount of rain to keep the ground soft, but the fields have been saturated. The yield looks good but we are unable to get to them, and ideally we will try and finish up by the first week of November. There may inevitably be some loss due to the fact the fields are so wet."
Sweet potato growers still struggling with low prices
Unfortunately for sweet potato growers, prices have been very low, leading some to pull out of the fresh market. The recent hurricane in North Carolina and rain events such as the one in Louisiana will likely force prices to escalate. However, indications are that prices will remain below what many growers feel is worthwhile to remain in or re-enter the fresh market.
"We've been cutting back on packing fresh sweet potatoes because prices have been so low," Barham said. "The market suggests that prices are on the rise a little since the hurricane passed through North Carolina, however they are still too low for us to warrant a return to the fresh market at this time."
Barham observed that there are, however, opportunities in processed sweet potatoes. "We are now mainly concentrating on sweet potato fries and other products that utilize sweet potatoes," he said. "We think there is definitely great potential in these value-added products. We also still have our signature varieties like Orleans and the very sweet Evangeline."
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Bonne Idee Produce