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Sweetening the Potato

PEPS will use NIFA grant to improve yield, quality, profitability for organic farmers

  • 28 September 2021
  • Author: Mark Berthold
  • Number of views: 584
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Sweetening the Potato

Weevils, nematodes, and soil-borne pathogens are the bane of sweet potato growers. Spraying with pesticides has adverse environmental impacts, yet farmers have historically been wary about whether consumers would pay a premium for organic sweet potato.

With a new $740K grant from the USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, several the Dept. of Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences will pursue improved yields, quality – and profitability of organic sweet potato production.

The goal is to develop an economical organic “Integrated Pest Management” (IPM) approach against the sweet potato weevil, nematodes, and soil-borne pathogens, while restoring soil health. The overall target is to present a decision-support tool and guidelines for small- to mid-size organic sweet potato farmers.

“Our multidisciplinary research and Extension team will partner with the USDA’s Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo and Auburn University in Alabama,” says principal investigator Koon-Hui Wang. “We’ve also received strong support from new farmer training programs, like GoFarm Hawaiʻi, and local farmers in Hawaiʻi and Alabama.”

Specifically, the team will 1) develop organic IPM strategies against sweet potato weevils, using pheromone traps, entomopathogenic nematodes and fungi through proper spray nozzles; 2) prescribe soil health management strategies compatible with small- and mid-size farms through small-farm equipment, cover crops with allelopathic effects against plant-parasitic nematodes, and fertigation; and 3) estimate the economic return of soil health management and organic IPM approaches for sweet potato farmers.

“Growers in Alabama who follow good organic IPM recommendations report reducing their crop losses by 40-50%,” Koon-Hui says. “How to produce sweet potatoes organically and profitability is valuable information, and developing specific organic IPM and soil-health management strategies for sweet potato farmers is timely, especially as Hawaiʻi is trying to increase self-sustainability and meet its food security needs.” 

Read the full grant description.

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