Sweet potato Louisiana State University breeder Don Labonte is one of only a handful of sweet potato breeders in the world, according to Tara Smith, coordinator of the LSU’s AgCenter’s Sweet Potato Research Station, Chase.

The sweet potato research center works to improve growing practices and develop new varieties.

Currently, the covington variety is the most widely planted.

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer at Southern Produce Distributions Inc., Faison, N.C., said he estimates up to 95% of sweet potatoes grown in North Carolina are covington. However, he says his company has a couple of new varieties in mind for the future.

This year, Labonte plans to release two new varieties.

Each new variety is given a number to distinguish it, the first two digits of which represent the year the research began, often five to six years before the variety is released to growers. Once the variety hits markets, it will be given a name.

One new variety, LA 05-111, is similar to the beauregard in skin color and flavor, but has a more uniform size and shape, providing greater consistency.

The second variety, LA 07-146 is approved for fresh market but also has good processing properties.

“We’re doing some final evaluations on it as a processing potato,” Labonte said.

According to Labonte, it has a high yield, high sugar content and nice flesh.

“It has a red skin instead of a rose-colored skin, so we’ll have to see how well it fits into the marketplace,” Labonte said.

The center created a white-flesh sweet potato, called the bonita, similar to the o’henry variety.

According to Labonte, white sweet potatoes provide a taste and texture similar to russets and reds with a lower glycemic content.

The bonita is in a later stage of development, but consumers will still only have limited access. According to Labonte, it was released to growers two years ago, so it should begin to appear in markets this year.

“We had some early adopters in Louisiana, so our supplies will mostly come from there,” Labonte said.

North Carolina and others may have a small supply, but most of the crop there will go to building up seed stock. This stage of development lasts for the first two to three years after the release of a new variety,

“The entire process takes about seven years before consumers will start to see these new varieties in stores,” Labonte says.

In addition to providing new varieties, Smith says the AgCenter’s mission is to serve Louisiana’s sweet potato industry.

One of the center’s main focuses is to improve production efficiency and profitability.

“There are a lot of variables that can lead to unpredictable yields,” Smith said.

The station is working on a collaborative multistate research and extension project with North Carolina State, Mississippi State and the University of California-Davis.

The project, titled “Participatory Modeling and Decision Support for Improving Sweet Potato Production, Efficiency, Quality and Food Safety,” is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.