Health

Ethiopian scientist studies sweet potatoes at AgCenter research station

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(05/03/17) CHASE, La. — An Ethiopian scientist who wants to help farmers in sub-Saharan Africa grow a better sweet potato crop is studying at the LSU AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase as part of a U.S. Department of Agriculture-funded fellowship program.

Mihiretu Cherinet, an agronomist at the Hawassa, Ethiopia, office of the International Potato Center, is participating in the Consortium of International Agricultural Research Centers (CGIAR) Borlaug Fellowship Program, which encourages international collaboration on agricultural research.

He is spending this spring working with AgCenter horticulturist Arthur Villordon to identify ways to improve storage of sweet potato roots and to develop techniques that prevent roots from sprouting too early or too late.

Cherinet said it’s critical to find solutions to these issues because of Africa’s burgeoning interest in sweet potatoes. They grow well even with little rainfall, offering an economic boost for farmers whose maize and other crops struggle in droughty conditions. And they are a nutritious staple for places that contend with food insecurity.

“Sweet potatoes were a neglected crop before,” he said. “Nowadays, more attention is given at the policymakers’ level and different organizations because the value and the potential for the crop is increasing.”

Sweet potatoes are becoming more popular worldwide. Americans’ consumption of sweet potatoes has doubled in the past 15 years, said David Picha, director of AgCenter International Programs.

“Orange-flesh sweet potatoes are one of the healthiest foods, and a diversity of new value-added sweet potato products have contributed to the increased consumer demand,” he said. “A number of Borlaug fellows and visiting scholars from multiple countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America have collaborated with AgCenter scientists on sweet potato research during the last four years. This international collaboration has contributed to the advancement of both the Louisiana and global sweet potato industries.”

In Ethiopia, farmers traditionally plant their crop using vine cuttings from field-grown plants, an approach that can lead to failure because those plants often have been exposed to viruses and weevils. Cherinet said there has been a push to shift to a storage root-based seed system.

That practice — which involves saving sweet potato roots so they can be used to start the next growing season’s crop — is common in Louisiana. But there are hurdles to success in Ethiopia, where refrigerated storage facilities like those found in the U.S. generally are not available, putting roots at risk of sprouting too early and being damaged by insects.

Cherinet has been seeing good results with the “Triple S” system, which begins with storing roots in sand to minimize weevil infestations, protect them from the sun and keep them from sprouting too early. When it’s time to plant, the roots are placed in the sun and sprouted.

Roots of some varieties do not sprout easily, so Cherinet also is investigating how to initiate the process once they are taken out of storage. A hormone treatment seems to be a promising option.

The treatment even may help solve a problem Louisiana farmers have with the Bellevue variety of sweet potatoes.

“Bellevue has a terrible sprouting rate in plant beds,” Villordon said. “It’s a really important economic concern for us because some farmers would like to grow Bellevue because it has a nice shape and nice quality. But if the sprouting continues to be a problem, then people will not grow any.”

Cherinet said his time at the AgCenter has been valuable.

“Your mentor is here and available to help with anything,” Cherinet said.

Villordon said he has enjoyed the experience as well. He visited Ethiopia in January and will go back for a follow-up visit this summer after Cherinet returns home.

“In terms of the scientific exchange, I think the fellow benefits. But on the other hand, Louisiana agriculture and the LSU AgCenter benefit as well because we are learning,” he said. “I think this is a very good process. And in terms of cultural exchange, we also learn from each other, and the experience has been enriching.”

Susan Karimiha, an AgCenter International Programs coordinator, also will go on the follow-up trip to Ethiopia.

“Ultimately, we advance U.S. agriculture through this type of global engagement, help develop more sustainable food systems and improve global food security,” Karimiha said.

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Mihiretu Cherinet, left, an agronomist from Ethiopia studying at the LSU AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station as part of the Borlaug Fellowship Program, holds a sweet potato root as he stands with AgCenter horticulturist Arthur Villordon, right, in a storage room at the station on March 29. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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Mihiretu Cherinet, an Ethiopian agronomist working with LSU AgCenter horticulturist Arthur Villordon at the Sweet Potato Research Station as part of the Borlaug Fellowship Program, measures sprouts on sweet potato roots in a laboratory at the station on March 29. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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LSU AgCenter International Programs coordinator Susan Karimiha, left, and AgCenter horticulturist Arthur Villordon, center, listen as Mihiretu Cherinet, right, an agronomist from Ethiopia studying at the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station as part of the Borlaug Fellowship Program, explains his research on March 29. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

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A farmer looks over his field in Ethiopia, where LSU AgCenter agronomist Arthur Villordon visited in January ahead of the arrival of Mihiretu Cherinet, an Ethiopian scientist participating in the Borlaug Fellowship Program, at the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station. Cherinet has spent this spring working with Villordon at the station. Photo by Arthur Villordon/LSU AgCenter

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