Tuesday, the Rotary Club of Crowley was given a deeper look into the industry by its guest speaker, Matt Garber of Garber Farms.
While Garber Farms runs warehouses in other areas in the state, its Iota facility is where it all started roughly 35 years ago.
Several decades ago Louisiana had cornered the market on sweet potatoes, but as time passed, other states and areas entered the market and, along with other factors, put a damper on Louisiana’s market reach and acreage, especially in the past decade.
Garber Farms opened in 1978 and entered the sweet potato business in 1980, and for the local farm, marketing has been key in its success.
There are several factors that have led to the drop in acreage, including, according to Garber, storms, several insects, crop insurance, lack of loan opportunities, a lack of investment in cold storage infrastructure and shipping quarantines.
As the demand for sweet potatoes as a year-round crop grew, Louisiana could not compete. The state’s farmers had relied so heavily for many years prior on growing, harvesting and shipping, they never put the necessary money into cold storage capability. Thus, when the demand grew, farmers with cold storage in other states stepped in.
Moreover, since Hurricane Katrina, farms like Garber Farms have not been able to use the Port of New Orleans to ship crops overseas. That has dwindled their market to mostly parts of Canada and the U.S., mainly the East Coast.
“Louisiana is at a distinct freight disadvantage,” said Garber.
But, while that has hurt the state quite a bit, nothing has hurt the industry in Louisiana quite like the shipping quarantine.
In the ’40s, Louisiana’s sweet potato market, then at its pinnacle, was tested and hurt severely by one insect, the sweetpotato weevil. The weevil did most of its damage in the ’40s and ’50s. In South Louisiana, because of infestations over the years, the area has been designated a “pink tag area,” or an area known for sweetpotato weevils. The quarantine states that pink tag areas cannot export to green tag areas, which has given the likes of the Carolinas and Mississippi an edge over Louisiana.
Through that, a ripple effect has caused another blow to South Louisiana’s sweet potato industry. When chain stores expand into green tag areas, where Garber Farms cannot send its product, that can be a deal breaker for the stores, which usually look to get their sweet potatoes from one location only.
Garber hopes to once again bring the issue to the Department of Agriculture’s attention during its next round of meetings, and hopes to net good results for South Louisiana.
What has helped Louisiana stay in the national conversation is the Beauregard Sweet Potato, an LSU-developed potato. But due to the economy, many produce sellers value price over appearance, which hasn’t helped edge the state forward.
Garber also talked about how, as is the case with any agricultural crop, the weather is a huge factor.
The meeting also saw three special guests from the Rotary Club of Crowley-sponsored Youth Act Club at Armstrong Middle School. The school’s principal, Marshall Thibodeaux, and club sponsor, Kayla Broussard-Suire, accompanied student Destani Carrier, club vice president, who updated Crowley as to Youth Act’s activities thus far this year and what it hopes to accomplish for the remainder of the year.