LSU AgCenter has been awarded a $2.84 million research and Extension grant for improving sweet potato production efficiency, quality and food safety.

The grant was included in more than $46 million awarded through the Specialty Crop Research Initiative, established by the 2008 farm bill to support specialty crops in the United States.

The LSU AgCenter grant is for a multi-state, multi-disciplinary project, according to Tara Smith, sweet potato specialist and research coordinator at the LSU AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, La. (For more on Smith’s work see http://deltafarmpress.com/news/sweet-potato-harvest-1103/index.html.)

“The project was developed in cooperation with producers and industry representatives across the United States and comprehensively addresses several key concerns that were identified by our stakeholders,” Smith said.

“The AgCenter is the lead institution on this project along with Mississippi State University, North Carolina State University and University of California, Davis,” Smith said. The project includes 27 participants, including 11 from the LSU AgCenter.

The three-year project will focus on overcoming production limitations that reduce yield, improving sweet potato quality and safety and addressing emerging disease threats.

One significant feature of the project is the development of a model-based decision support system, said Arthur Villordon, a horticulturist at the Sweet Potato Research Station.

The project will further develop a prototype computer model to predict how plants respond to weather and other environmental factors. Growers can use the information to improve their efficiency and productivity.

“The fully developed model will assist growers in making optimum decisions in response to different biological and agroclimatic conditions,” Villordon said. “It will provide some degree of predictability and help explain the extreme variability in yield.”

Villordon’s model is based on preliminary research that was supported by an earlier grant from the Louisiana Board of Regents Pilot Funding for New Research. The computer-based system monitors environmental conditions and predicts yields based on uniform production variables, such as plant spacing and fertilizer and pesticide use.

While focusing on weather data, the model eventually will be expanded to include variations in fertilizers, pesticides and variety selection.

The model is based on data from a network of weather stations within the AgCenter, Villordon said. “We’re using our existing assets.”

In addition to the model-based decision system, the grant also will fund research to evaluate new sweet potato varieties to improve harvest efficiency and reduce postharvest losses.

“On average, 20 to 25 percent loss occurs during curing and storage and another 5 to 15 percent is lost during shipping and retailing,” Smith said.

Another aspect of the project is to address postharvest disease problems and ensure food safety and quality, she said. “We want to enhance disease management options by evaluating alternative methods to manage postharvest diseases and set priorities to address potential food safety concerns.”

The grant also will fund outreach programs in each participating state to transfer the technology to the industry, Smith added. “We want to move results into producers’ hands to increase their productivity.”

“Average sweet potato yields in the South are fairly low compared with their potential,” Villordon said. “We want to understand variables that reduce yield and improve decision making — in the areas of both environment and management.”