America’s first sweet potato breeder, Julian Miller, pioneered the creation of the Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, Louisiana, in 1949 to benefit commercial producers. This LSU AgCenter facility continues to be the only research station in the US solely dedicated to sweet potato research and development.
“Having the infrastructure to support the breeding and the foundation seed programs at one unit is unique,” said Tara Smith, station coordinator and director of the Central Region.
The AgCenter has developed varieties grown in Louisiana, across the United States and even worldwide. But the essential mission of the station has always been to benefit Louisiana producers.
“My relationship with the research station really started almost at birth for me,” said Larry Fontenot, an Evangeline Parish sweet potato producer, who remembers Julian Miller setting up trials on his father’s farm.
“My dad would go and pick up foundation seed at the sweet potato station when the AgCenter started their seed program, and I continue to do that today. Without that research and the foundation seed program, I don’t think the sweet potato industry would have survived.”
The station, which was designated one of seven National Clean Plant Centers for Sweet Potato in 2015 has realized great success in producing quality planting stock (the storage roots are used as seed) for the commercial sweet potato industry. The process starts by creating virus-free foundation seed for growers and developing effective cultural and pest management practices.
“As long as I can ever remember, all of those guys worked in harmony,” said Fontenot.
LSU AgCenter sweet potato breeder Don La Bonte has continued the legacy of famous breeders like Miller and Larry Rolston, an entomologist, who released the revolutionary Beauregard in 1987 — a variety that still has global appeal. Developing a new variety requires seven to eight years, with a team of scientists evaluating plants for high yield, desirable flesh color and shape, as well as resistance to insects and disease. Orleans, Bayou Belle, Vermilion and Evangeline are examples of recent releases from the AgCenter breeding program.
“If you look at the industry, they’re constantly pressured by labor costs, increased cost of machinery and often they don’t get a higher gate price for their sweet potatoes,” La Bonte said. “The margin is getting thinner and thinner and really the best escape out of that trap is coming up with a better variety.”
When La Bonte first came to the station, he wondered why it was located so far away from the production regions.
“It actually makes a lot of sense,” said La Bonte. “If you’re going to grow seed for the industry you really want a clean environment isolated from the industry because that helps you protect what you grow here from infestations of diseases and insect pests.”
Sweet potatoes are vegetatively propagated so they are at risk of becoming infected with viruses and mutations that can contribute to considerable decline in yield and quality. That’s why desirable varieties developed and selected from tens of thousands of plants are sent to the Sweet Potato Plant Pathology Laboratory on the LSU campus for virus testing and virus therapy. The cleaned up versions are then sent back to the Sweet Potato Research Station.
“It’s a testament to the value of incorporating clean seed when you look at a variety like a Beauregard that was released over 34 years ago,” said Smith.
“It is still a mainstay and commercial standard, and the only reason it can be successfully grown is because we have the virus-tested foundation seed program. Producers annually incorporate virus-tested clean material into their on-farm seed programs, and that is a critical part of ensuring high yields and superior quality.”
Currently, AgCenter pathologists work with about 10 different sweet potato diseases. They actively screen for resistance and then improve resistance in the new varieties.
“For the last 22 years, we’ve been using tissue culture to micro-propagate plants to take to the Sweet Potato Research Station greenhouses where they’re increased for producers,” said Christopher Clark, AgCenter plant pathologist.
With most crops you can see the marketable product developing above ground, but the underground storage roots of a sweet potato are hidden from view.
AgCenter horticulturist Arthur Villordon conducts research on storage root development and cultural practices that can improve the quality and yield of sweet potatoes.
“All the work that Dr. Villordon has done related to storage root initiation, irrigation, plant quality and specific fertility recommendations has been a game changer for the industry,” said Smith.
“Arthur has made some critical changes,” said Fontenot. “His research on the use of fertilizer has changed the way we apply fertilizer, and his research on the quality of our plants or slips has changed our approach toward our seed beds.”
“Our work in understanding what variables affect root architecture in sweet potato is now more integrative,” said Villordon. “Before we looked at irrigation separately from fertility; now we understand that water and nutrients work together in order to improve yields.”
Because of research and new varieties, the average yield for sweet potatoes has increased by more than a 100 bushels per acre over the past 10 years, said Smith.
A new pest that could be damaging to the industry is the Guava root knot nematode.
“One key issue facing the entire U. S. sweet potato industry is Guava root knot nematode,” said Smith. “A lot of the focus with our team of scientists is to identify commercial sweet potato varieties that have appreciable levels of resistance to Guava root knot nematode and southern root knot nematode.”
Since its inception, the station has continually adapted to meet the changing needs of the industry. Whether sweet potatoes are grown for the fresh market or processing plants, the station’s research is geared to help producers grow profitable crops.
As part of a more diversified business model, the station is also marketing plant material to Europe and South America.
“Our overarching mission is to meet the needs of our Louisiana producers, who have always provided critical support to AgCenter research programs,” said Smith. “Over the last 10 years we’ve also been able to diversify outside the borders of Louisiana by patenting the varieties, helping to generate a revenue stream that financially contributes to the research programs.”
The Sweet Potato Research Station continues to be successful because of the determined efforts of researchers working together to accomplish common goals for the sweet potato industry.
“We’ve been very blessed to have some unique individuals come through that station and apply their knowledge and their research to help us stay alive today,” said Fontenot.
Randy LaBauve is a communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications.
(This article appears in the fall 2021 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)
The Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, Louisiana, continues to be the only research station in the US solely dedicated to sweet potato research and development. Photo by Randy LaBauve
LSU AgCenter horticulturist Arthur Villordon conducts research on storage root development and cultural practices that can improve the quality and yield of sweet potatoes. Photo by Randy LaBauve