Friday, August 14, 2015

Louisiana: Sweet Potato Talk

2010 Yambilee poster, Yambilee Festival Building, Opelousas, Louisiana

I was standing in line at my neighborhood grocery store the other day, and a man came up behind me with only one item to buy, so I invited him to move ahead of me. A happy consequence is that he noticed the two gigantic sweet potatoes I had among my stash, and this sparked a memory for him.

Yam sign outside Yambilee Festival Building, Opelousas, Louisiana

When he was a kid, he dug up sweet potatoes during the harvest from, he said, first thing in the morning til the end of the day. It was terrible hard work, he said, but at mid-day, the labor was suspended for a large meal, which gave him energy to re-commence with the work in the afternoon. The man allowed as how it made him feel strong and good. ... though I suspect this is more how it feels to him in retrospect than at the time.

Sweet potato patties, Walmart, Lafayette, Louisiana

The man observed that digging the sweet potatoes is no longer necessary, as there is a machine that can do it now.

Yambilee Festival Building, Opelousas, Lousiana

Recently, I've been buying sweet potatoes in bulk because the price at my local grocer is so giddily low right now and I love the durn things. I bake two racks of them at a time, skin them, distribute them into portions, then freeze the portions in freezer bags.

Sweet potato chips, Louisiana

The man's story got me to thinking about sweet potato agriculture.

The American leaders of sweet potato production, in order from largest to smallest, are:
  1. North Carolina
  2. California
  3. Mississippi
  4. Louisiana

Louisiana State University produced the video, The Sweet Truth About Sweet Potatoes, which focuses on commercial sweet potato agriculture, from planting to harvesting and curing:

Based on what I've learned in the above video, I'm thinking the sweet potatoes I'm buying today are those that were harvested last year.

What I see in the LSU video about commercial sweet potato agriculture in Louisiana is at odds with the troubling work conditions for North Carolina laborers that I'm reading about. In the LSU video, I see mechanical harvesting (which conforms with what the gentleman at the grocery store told me), but the reports about North Carolina refer to hand-harvesting, which is where labor abuses come in.

North Carolina Sweet Potatoes says this about mechanical vs. hand-harvesting:
"Sweet potato roots are turned up on top of the ground by a side angle disk plow and partially exposed to aid the workers in picking and sorting. Sweet potatoes are very susceptible to damage at harvest; therefore hand-harvest is preferred over mechanical harvesting. ... To harvest, the field rows are usually plowed with a modified disk or moldboard plow with a spiral attachment. Roots are then hand harvested and graded in the field. Sweet potatoes can also be dug by a chain digger or a riding harvester that conveys the roots to a sorting crew using a harvest aide. Potato harvesters are sometimes used to harvest sweet potatoes but damage is usually unacceptably high."

Even though Louisiana might use mechanical harvesting, and therefore maybe there aren't all of the same labor equity concerns here as in North Carolina, there is still a question about how commercial farmers in Louisiana protect workers during and after pesticide spraying.

Just as the movement builds to protect people from second-hand smoke in businesses .... when we have an opportunity to do so, let's encourage our food suppliers, legislators, and local, state, and federal regulatory agencies to create and enforce safeguards to protect agricultural workers (and their families - and consumers) from unhealthy work and living conditions (when provided by the farmers). Some advocacy and regulatory organizations include:

Farmworker Justice
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)
United Farm Workers

On a different note ... Do you notice how I side-stepped the whole yam versus sweet potato conversation? 

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