WHAT EARLIER appeared to be a bumper crop of sweet potatoes for Louisiana farmers has turned into a below-normal crop, according to Mike Cannon, LSU AgCenter sweet potato specialist and resident director of the AgCenter's Sweet Potato Research Station at Chase, La.

This year's acreage planted to sweet potatoes in the state is close to 25,000 acres, Cannon said, with about 60 percent in the northeastern corner of the state and the balance in south-central Louisiana. With the 2001 harvest 65 percent to 70 percent complete at mid-October, Cannon said yields will be down because of crop losses caused by heavy late-summer and early-fall rains — particularly in southern Louisiana.

On Oct. 17, Jim Deshotel stood in a field while sweet potatoes unfit for harvest littered the ground. Nearby, his harvest crew was selecting only about half the sweet potatoes coming out of the ground. The rest were left behind.

Deshotel, who grew about 400 acres of sweet potatoes this year near Bunkie, La., saw his crop fall in quality dramatically as the result of early October rains.

This year's crop “was looking good on Aug. 15. We were expecting the biggest crop in 10 years,” Deshotel said, adding that his fields were clean and there was no insect pressure.

A grim Deshotel said now only about half of the produce coming out of the field would grade high enough to be sold in the profitable fresh sweet potato market. The balance will be sold to the local cannery.

The problem is bacterial soft rot, which is caused by too much rain, said Earnest Freeman, an LSU AgCenter county agent in Avoyelles Parish. The mature sweet potatoes that were still in the soil took in moisture, and the rot developed.

“When the ground stays wet, the root becomes asphyxiated and breaks down,” Cannon said. “The wet soils cause the storage roots to break down and often create an environment for secondary organisms to create additional problems.”

In addition to quality problems, the rains delayed harvest.

“Harvest in Avoyelles Parish is a little bit behind,” Freeman said. “It was on schedule until about 5 inches of rain fell Oct. 12-13, which meant farmers lost about a week.”

This year Mike Quebedeaux raised 150 acres of sweet potatoes near Mansura, La., not far from Deshotel's farm.

“We have about 60 acres (of sweet potatoes) left in the field rotting and not worth digging,” said Quebedeaux, president of the Avoyelles Parish sweet potato growers.

Based on a survey of county agents, LSU AgCenter economists recently estimated on-farm losses in sweet potatoes in Louisiana at approximately $10.9 million, including $2.3 million in St. Landry Parish and $2.2 million in Avoyelles Parish.

In spite of the falloff in production, Cannon said consumers won't notice a shortage right away.