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Sweetpotatoes Earn Endurance Reward
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Like other Mississippi crops, the sweetpotato crop is reaching the end of a long, hard row, but its tropical nature has prevented catastropic results.
Chickasaw County agent Charlie Fitts said the majority of sweetpotatoes are the Beauregard variety, which has been one of the most successful varieties in recent years.
"Beauregard is a forgiving variety. It will endure most any kind of weather conditions," Fitts said. "Not only is it more forgiving than other sweetpotato varieties, it is also more forgiving of the hot, dry conditions we experienced in 1998 than other Mississippi crops like corn, soybeans and cotton."
Like those other crops, sweetpotato yields will be down this year, but not to the same extreme. Sweetpotatoes are tropical in nature, so they can take hot, dry conditions better than other crops can. Still, most of this fall's crop is smaller than growers would like to have.
"It has been an uphill battle all year. Growers planted late and the crop established slowly," Fitts said. "Now, the dust and hard dirt is making harvest difficult on the people harvesting and on the potatoes that are more likely to be scarred in these conditions.
Dr. Paul Thompson, sweetpotato specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said seed stock yields at the Pontotoc Research and Extension Center will be higher than last year because of irrigation. Early problems with transplant production and other stresses also will prevent record yields.
Benny Graves, sweetpotato inspector with the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry at Mississippi State University, said a rain would improve yields by filling out potatoes and also would help harvest. Early potatoes were larger than later potatoes that needed rains around the first of September.
"Normally, growers harvest about 300 bushels per acre. It is hard to tell how much averages will be down this year," Graves said.
J.R. Penick of Penick Produce Co. in Vardaman said potatoes are small, but the quality is excellent. Prices for the top grade potatoes are around $15 per bushel. Smaller potatoes, which usually go to processing, are $2 to $3 per bushel.
"It's hard to offset low yields with better prices. If you make half a crop, you need twice the price, and that's not likely to happen," Penick said.
"We still waiting on some of the later transplants, but the sun's going down on this crop," Penick said. "It gets risky to delay harvest too long. Too much rain can be as bad as too little."
Penick said growers have been irrigating fields to help with the harvest, but not with hopes of helping the potatoes fill out.
Mississippi growers planted about 9,600 acres of sweetpotatoes this year, about 1,000 acres more than in 1997. More than 9,000 of those acres are within a 30-mile radius of Vardaman, home of the annual Sweet Potato Festival.
The annual arts and crafts fair will take place Nov. 7. Other activities during the day include a tasting booth, street dance and competitions. On Nov. 14, the recipe contest and harvest banquet will take place. For more information, contact festival planners at (601) 682-7559.