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Participatory Modeling and Decision Support for Improving Sweetpotato Production Efficiency, Quality and Food Safety

Smith, Tara
Louisiana State University
Start date
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The United States Sweetpotato Industry is at a tipping point. Discovery of sweetpotato by new processing industries and health-conscious consumers is markedly increasing domestic and international demand. Yet erratic yields and escalating costs of production have left many producers on the edge of profitability and vulnerable to any adversity such as drought or hurricanes. Unfortunately, producers must contend with huge variations in storage root yield, quality, disease, and storability in fields planted just days apart and separated by short distances.

The long term goal of this Coordinated Agricultural Project is to improve sweetpotato production efficiency through a comprehensive research and extension effort that focuses on three major themes: overcoming production limitations that reduce yield, improving root quality and addressing food safety, and addressing emerging disease threats to productivity. A key focus of this effort will be to build on new understanding of storage root initiation. A prototype model for improving storage root development has attracted producers' interest and will be expanded and refined through research on additional variables.

Our approach places strong emphasis on developing a participatory (stakeholder driven) decision support system (DSS) which accumulates and integrates information, data and observations from field and laboratory experiments. An easily updateable DSS will incorporate new knowledge from producer experience and research, helping to ensure coordination of activities and sustainability and continuity after the life of the project. Reducing yield variability and improving production efficiencies will ensure our producers are able to capitalize on expanding opportunities and remain profitable.

In addition to research based publications, an extensive set of educational materials for training growers about all facets of production and "how to" information concerning the decision support system will be created.

objectives of this project are to:

  1. Develop a participatory model-based decision support system for optimizing yields under various growing environments.
  2. Enable bulk harvesting and reduce postharvest losses through germplasm selection and breeding.
  3. Understand the etiology and biology of emerging end rot diseases to develop a predictive model and management strategies.
  4. Develop strategies for enhancing food safety by reducing fungicide use and identifying critical food safety hazards and developing a crisis communication response plan.
  5. Outreach and technology transfer towards establishing communities of practice (CoP) to facilitate the adoption of location-specific decision support systems and for enhancing quality and food safety.
More information
NON-TECHNICAL SUMMARY: The historical significance and economic impact of the United States Sweetpotato Industry on the infrastructure of specialty crop agriculture cannot be overstated. The number of acres planted to sweetpotatoes was as high as 894,000 acres in the 1930's, but underwent significant decline after the postwar years and remained relatively stagnant until the 2000's. However, production and marketing trends in the last five years, generated by increasing public awareness of sweetpotato's health attributes, point to a promising increase in acreage. The majority of commercial production occurs in five states, including: North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi, California and Alabama, however, limited production occurs in many states across the southeastern United States. Many sweetpotato producers are considered family farmers and their respective operations contribute significantly to the lifeline of the surrounding rural communities in which they live. Unfortunately many small farmers in rural communities have gone out of business due to recent events including hurricanes and drought. Other losses were attributed to unsustainable marginal yields. Factors like acute labor shortages as well as spiraling production costs have reduced profit margins. The long term goal of this Coordinated Agricultural Project is to improve sweetpotato production efficiency through a comprehensive research and extension effort that focuses on three major themes: overcoming production limitations that reduce yield, improving root quality and safety, addressing emerging disease threats to productivity. Stakeholders will be actively involved in the development and execution of many research and all outreach activities proposed in this project. Their input was critical in developing a concentrated proposal which reflects the most pressing concerns of the U.S. sweetpotato industry, and will indeed be beneficial as we address specific objectives outlined in the proposed research.

APPROACH: All of the research and extension outreach objectives will be conducted under rigorous use of the scientific method. All experiments and activities will be replicated where applicable and will be subjected to appropriate statistical analyses upon completion.Specific approaches related to research objectives include conducting a participatory assessment of a prototype model and the overall scope and goal of the decision support system on a location specific basis. A minimum data set will be collected for the prototype model and a standard procedure for confirming storage root initiation or lignification will be adopted in all experiments. Comprehensive laboratory, greenhouse and field studies will be used to identify risk factors from herbicides, insecticides and fungicides. The effect of viruses on sweetpotato root initiation will be investigated. Two main interfaces related to the decision support system will be developed, and the output from the objectives will result in a fully functional stand-alone DSS. Activities related to the second overall objective include screening and evaluating germ plasm for disease and skinning resistance. The third objective will focus on understanding the etiology and biology of emerging disease threats. The fourth overall objective involves strategies for enhancing food safety. Postharvest thermal treatments to reduce the incidence of soft rots, surface molds and sprouting will be investigated. We will utilize the sweetpotato industry to develop a needs assessment that identifies critical food safety hazards in sweetpotato. We will then develop a crisis communication intensive workshop to assist sweetpotato producers and commodity groups with the development of crisis communication plans. We will use the proposed participatory modeling approach which includes discipline experts and stakeholders, as modified in each participating state, to educate, calibrate and implement the modeling technology (decision support system) on-farm, with an overall goal of optimizing yields, improving production efficiency and increasing overall returns to the farmer. Our primary evaluation tool will be a grower survey conducted during the winter of Year 1 and the winter following the project's termination. The surveys will be designed to identify and determine changes in: grower awareness and adoption of the decision support system; production practices and pest management activities; production, pest management, and postharvest information sources along with their usefulness and quality; grower attitudes about "needs" concerning production, pest management and post-harvest handling of sweetpotatoes. The results will be used to engage growers in a discussion about the future direction of this and any future projects.

Funding Source
Nat'l. Inst. of Food and Agriculture
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