Larry Fontenot (right) is seen sifting through cleaned sweet potatoes before they were boxed and sold to local consumers last Thursday. (Gazette photo by Elizabeth West)
A sweet harvest
With sweet potato harvest nearing its end, local farmer Larry Fontenot compares the business during this time of year to “running a crawfish plant during Holy Week.”
Larry said, “Everybody wants a sack of crawfish during the Lenten season. For us, everybody wants their box of potatoes before Thanksgiving.”
Before the potatoes are ready for any dinner table though, Larry and his team of locally employed farm hands spend months practicing a trade that the Faubourg resident learned from his late father Earl Fontenot, Jr.
Larry said, “World War II broke out when my dad was in college at LSU, so he and his buddies enlisted. When daddy got back from the service, his grandfather was sick, so he couldn’t go back to LSU. He had to go back home and help the family.
“When he got back he was able to get a job working with the Lormand family, who had a sweet potato warehouse in Ville Platte. They were a big sweet potato provider in Evangeline Parish back in the day. At that time, you also had the Stanfords in Chataignier that were really big into sweet potato farming, and you had Wilson Campbell that farmed sweet potatoes near the Pine Prairie area.”
Eventually, Earl moved on to grow his own sweet potatoes, which in the late 1980’s led to the creation of he and his son’s business, E&L Produce.
The Fontenots chose to focus on this specialty crop after Larry said, he realized “raising soybeans, corn and cattle was not enough to make a living.”
With his father’s knowledge of sweet potato farming, the family business began with 550 acres being farmed.
Over the last three decades however, the sweet potato industry has experienced a variety of major changes, which, according to Larry, has made the sweet potato farmer a “unique breed like dairy farmers in Louisiana.” The reason why, he said, is because “there is no glamour or glory to sweet potato farming.”
Larry then continued, “For a lot of farmers, it’s a lot more colorful and you feel like you have more clout when you get on a $250,000 combine, a $250,000 four-wheel drive tractor, or a $400,000 spray rig and ride around and say I am farming 2,000 to 3,000 acres of grain. You won’t see sweet potato farmers with all that.”
There is little glamour that comes with farming sweet potatoes because the harvesting process drastically differs from that of crops like rice, corn or soybeans.
During harvest time for sweet potatoes, a potato spinner is used to lift the sweet potatoes from the ground, which then moves the crop up to a large wheel with spokes. The potato is then rolled onto a conveyer belt that has 10 to 12 workers waiting to sift through the good and bad potatoes. This part of the process begins in mid-August and ends in mid-November.
Larry said, “This crop is one that takes a lot of manual labor. Everyone of those sweet potatoes is picked up by hand and put into a box. Then we take them out of the box by hand. It’s a dirty job that takes a lot of work.”
Another major change in the farm industry that has affected the amount of sweet potato farmers and how many acres they farm deals with the fact that farmers are not just farmers today.
Larry, who farmed 125 acres of sweet potatoes this year, said, “We are actually a sweet potato farm and sweet potato shipper. Back in the day, when we first started this, you had a sweet potato farmer and then you had a sweet potato shipper. Now, all of those that have survived are farmers and shippers combined together. They grow the potato, farm the potato, and ship their own potato.”
Surviving this shift in the farm industry has been done by few, which has made the sweet potato farmer a rare thing to come by these days. So rare, that Fontenot says E&L Produce for the 2017 season “was the only commercial operation in Evangeline Parish.”
“We are somewhat of a dying breed,” said Larry. “In the last 20 years, there have been some really adverse weather conditions in the growing season that have affected production. We are in a crop where it is very, very expensive to grow an acre of sweet potatoes, so when you lose your crop, you lose a lot. It’s a big recovery.”
The sweet potato industry took another hit in Louisiana when the last of four canning facilities left the state a few years ago. This change forced the Fontenots to downsize the farm that had already shrunk to 250 acres.
Larry said, “We use to farm right at 250 acres up until a few years ago. Then my dad, who started the business, passed away and it fell at a time where we lost the last sweet potato canning facility that we had in the state. Forty-five percent of our crop would go to the canning plant. Once we lost those canners, all of sudden we were looking at not having a market to sell 45 percent of our crop.
“That is the part of the puzzle that got me down to 125 acres of sweet potatoes.”
The potatoes that went to the canning facilities were the ones that weren’t good enough for the fresh market. However, without the canning facility, this revenue source disappeared.
The opening of Lamb Weston, which is a french fry facility in Delhi, La., in recent years has provided another outlet for E&L Produce to sell some of its sweet potatoes that will not make it to market.
Before any potatoes leave the warehouse though, they have to dry for a minimum of six weeks to allow the starch on the potato to turn to sugar. Once that is complete, the potatoes are run through the packing line and boxed for pick up.
Along with selling to Lamb Weston, E&L Produce also sells sweet potatoes to retail stores in Texas and to stores in Cleveland, Ohio.
The newest side to this 30-year-old business involves selling fresh sweet potatoes to local customers at the Fontenot’s packing facility located in the Faubourg area. People drive from as far as two and a half hours away to purchase sweet potatoes from E&L Produce, the most popular being the sweetest sweet potato of all - the Evangeline.
Larry said, “The amount of walk-in customers that we have has grown over the years. That’s not a huge part of the farming operation, but it is a part of it. We have people that come once a year to get their one box of sweet potatoes. It makes you feel good to see people continue to come back each year.”
While the sales side of the business is important, for Larry, it’s the being outdoors and problem solving that he has always enjoyed most about his career.
Larry said, “Every phase of this business is hard and it’s challenging, but it’s something that we grew into. I can definitely say that what I enjoy most about it is being outside working with soil and just preparing to overcome whatever challenges mother nature may present.”