Sweet potato, rice crops take hit from Gustav

Earl Fontenot may have to wait a month before any losses are apparent in his sweet potato crop after Hurricane Gustav.

“It’s too early to tell if we’re going to have some loss,” he said. “But it’s not looking good. They are under stressful conditions now.”

A few days after the hurricane, Fontenot dug up a few potatoes and found some signs of rot and disease.

Fontenot said the family’s soybean crop can’t be harvested now because his bins are filled with this year’s grain sorghum crop.

Fontenot said it will be three to four weeks before he knows the extent of sweet potato losses. He said although seed potato harvest ordinarily would be done now, harvest has not started on his 200 acres of sweet potatoes because the crop is late as a result of insufficient moisture earlier this year.

If sweet potatoes are damaged, that could affect the seed potatoes that would be planted for next year’s crop, Fontenot said.

Hurricane Gustav dumped 14 inches of rain on the Fontenot farm, and the rain came when sweet potatoes were maturing – the worst possible time for excess moisture, he said.

Fontenot said he realizes sweet potato farmers in North Louisiana are much worse off after receiving more than 20 inches of rain in some areas.

The Ville Platte farmer said his power was restored the day after it went out, and that saved the 6,500 bushels of sweet potatoes in storage that require air conditioning. His processing plant now is packing potatoes that have been in storage since last year.

Fontenot has been farming more than 50 years, and he recalled the worst damage to his sweet potato crop came in 2002 with Hurricane Lili and Tropical Storm Isidore, causing losses of 50 percent. The worst storm was Hurricane Audrey that wiped out his entire 200-acre cotton crop in 1957, he said.

Farmer Gussie Brown of Ville Platte said he only managed to harvest 43 acres of his 450-acre cotton crop before Gustav hit.

Wind knocked the bolls off many of his cotton plants, and the seeds in the cotton have already sprouted on the ground. Many of the bolls that had not opened have begun to rot, Brown said.

Brown also said he won’t know how much damage was inflicted until he tries to harvest the crop. “Some of it we’ll go ahead and pick it and see what happens,” he said.

On the other hand, he said his 120 acres of soybeans had not started to mature, so they should be okay.

Evangeline Parish farmers met Wednesday, September 10, with state Commissioner of Agriculture and Forestry Mike Strain, who advised that the current farm bill passed in Congress this year provides limited disaster assistance for farmers.

Strain said he is working with the Louisiana congressional delegation to get a special appropriations bill in Congress to help Louisiana farmers affected by Gustav.

Strain said he met with President Bush last week and briefed him on Gustav’s impact on Louisiana agriculture.

“He told us in a meeting he would do whatever he could to help us,” Strain said.

Strain said he will meet with USDA Secretary Ed Schafer to update him on the status of Louisiana agriculture.

Wayne Attales of Belaire Cove said he grew 1,600 acres of rice this year and he was able to harvest 60 percent. He added the rest of the crop will have a yield loss of about 2,400 to 3,200 pounds per acre while the statewide average before the hurricane was estimated to be about 6,100 pounds per acre.

Attales said it’s too soon to know whether his soybean crop will be worth harvesting.

Jody Fontenot also said his rice harvest has declined by about 2,400 to 3,200 pounds per acre after the storm.

The LSU AgCenter has estimated agricultural production losses in the neighborhood of $450 million statewide.

Farmer Richard Fontenot of Vidrine said that is a conservative figure, and he estimated a 15-30 percent loss for rice that has yet to be harvested in South Louisiana.

This story was written by Bruce Schultz of the LSU Agriculture Center. You can contact him at bschultz@agcenter.lsu.edu.

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