With its use as a commercial crop dating back to the early 1900s, the sweet potato’s popularity has grown in recent years as snacks like sweet potato fries are added to more and more menus across the nation. In 1948, the Louisiana State University AgCenter established the 308-acre Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, and since that time farmers and agricultural researchers have developed new varieties of sweet potatoes to satisfy changing palettes. The LSU AgCenter developed a variety of sweet potatoes specifically for french fry production – a sweeter, deep orange potato breed in a shape that decreases waste. The Research Station in Chase and the presence of talented research eventually contributed to ConAgra Food’s decision to locate a sweet potato processing plant in nearby Delhi. Dr. Don Labonte shares this innovation story:
[Q] What inspired the LSU AgCenter to develop new varieties of sweet potato?
[A] The LSU AgCenter has long been at the forefront of developing new sweet potato varieties for the U.S. market. Our sweet potato breeding program is one of only two active programs in the country. AgCenter varieties, led by our Beauregard and Orleans varieties, are grown not only in Louisiana but throughout the U.S. Louisiana is also at the forefront of processing, with major facilities in New Iberia and Delhi to capitalize on the burgeoning demand for processed sweet potatoes.
[Q] What is the LSU AgCenter doing that no other organization is doing?
[A] The new sweet potato variety 07-146, also known as Bayou Belle, is different from other varieties. With red skin and good sugar content, it’s a very good french fry sweet potato. It also produces significantly high yields of U.S. No. 1 potatoes. This variety is licensed to ConAgra Foods, and out-of-state growers must have a license with the company to grow the variety. Louisiana growers who want to plant it for the fresh market must purchase a license through the AgCenter.
[Q] How does the LSU AgCenter and its new varieties of sweet potato impact the Louisiana economy?
[A] ConAgra Foods saw a fast-moving trend toward sweet potato french fries and similar products, and it aggressively sought out sweet potato scientists at the AgCenter as part of their research and product-development team. This was all going on as they were deciding the merits of building a dedicated plant and where to build it in the U.S. In 2010, Lamb Weston, a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods, began operation of its sweet potato processing plant near Delhi. One of the principal reasons the company chose Louisiana for the facility was the ready access to the research conducted at the Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, as well as proximity to Louisiana sweet potato production, which in 2013 totaled more than 3.5 million bushels with a gross farm value of nearly $49 million.
[Q] When did you realize that the Bayou Belle sweet potato would be a success?
[A] The new variety Bayou Belle has some amazing features, including a 20 percent-plus gain in yield over the popular Beauregard variety and being ideally suited for making french fries. It looks a little different, too. It has a slightly blocky, brick-like shape – ideal for recovering high numbers of fries with less waste. And it is sweet – a big reason sweet potato fries are so popular. ConAgra Foods decided on Louisiana, and AgCenter technical support helped make it happen. For the producers, the opportunity to increase crop yield by over 20 percent, with no increase in financial inputs, can significantly improve their bottom line. An improved new variety with higher yields and favorable quality is the best way to stay profitable with ever-increasing production costs. This also reduces price pressure on the raw product, making processing competitive.
[Q] What is the LSU AgCenter doing to support other Louisiana entrepreneurs and innovators?
[A] Rural economic development addresses factors to increase the quality of rural life including the availability of infrastructure. The research and extension activities of the LSU AgCenter have adapted over time to address the development issues of a changing rural population and local economy. As the non-farm population of Louisiana grows and competition for globalized markets increases, AgCenter faculty members continue to incorporate innovative research and extension programs to address the evolving economy and support the establishment of successful businesses throughout the state.