Information Possibly Outdated
The information presented on this page was originally released on September 29, 2016. It may not be outdated, but please search our site for more current information. If you plan to quote or reference this information in a publication, please check with the Extension specialist or author before proceeding.
Vardaman woman returns to her first, and last, love
VARDAMAN, Miss. -- After 30 years behind a desk, Jan Cook Houston has returned to her first love and her second career, this time seated on a tractor pulling a sweet potato digger.
“Growing up here, I never thought farming was an option for a woman,” Houston said. “Dad didn’t expect me to farm, but he knew I could.”
Houston returned to her roots in 2009, a year that lives in infamy for growers in the heart of Mississippi’s sweet potato country.
“That was the year it rained all fall. We were digging in the mud. One day, Dad asked me to drive the digger,” she said. “I’ve always been a daddy’s girl, and I wanted to please him.”
That slippery experience made an impression on her.
“I was just praying not to slide off into the ditch. It was very challenging,” she said. “Farming has taught me a lot of faith, patience and optimism.”
The mud did not scare her away from farming. The next year and every year since, she has worked 20 acres of the family farm for her own sweet potato crop beside her home.
“I love looking out the window at my potatoes. It’s almost like having children. You plant and watch them grow, and you can’t wait to see the results,” she said. “It’s the whole circle of life experience.”
A similar circle has brought Houston from being a sweet potato farmer’s daughter to her new position in life. A revealing moment occurred recently while having her nails done at a salon in Oxford when she answered a familiar ice-breaking question with, “I’m a farmer.”
Most days, Houston is part farmer, part sweet potato cheerleader and part Vardaman ambassador. Her mother is one of the founders of Sweet Potato Sweets, a bakery that markets a variety of products made with the area’s No. 1 commodity.
“As children growing up in Calhoun County, we didn’t realize what we had with our sweet potatoes,” she said. “Today, there is more pride in our product. Sweet potatoes are very popular at the store and in restaurants. By the time the Sweet Potato Festival arrives in early November, we are all ready to celebrate the end of the harvest and have a big reunion with family and friends.”
Houston partners with her 84-year-old father, Paul Cook, and refers to him as “the brains of the operation.” Together, they farm 120 acres of sweet potatoes.
“As a child, you could always find me a step or two behind my dad,” she said. “As an adult, that’s still my happy place.”
Houston also grows peas and sweet corn to keep her busy before the sweet potatoes are ready for harvest.
Sylvia Clark, Mississippi State University Extension Service family and consumer sciences associate, lives in Vardaman and works with Mississippi Women for Agriculture. The program is designed to increase the knowledge and skills of women in all aspects of farm and agribusiness management. But more than that, Clark has witnessed Houston’s return home.
Clark described Houston as “a worker bee” who believes in putting sweat equity into her product.
“She’s not one to sit in an air-conditioned office keeping the books,” Clark said. “Farmer Jan is a boots-in-the-field kind of person. It shows in her work ethic and her product.
“Farming sweet potatoes is in Jan’s DNA. Her grandfather was one of the first sweet potato farmers in the county,” Clark said. “She is learning all that she can from her father, and he clearly enjoys being her mentor. Obviously, they are relishing this time together: father to daughter, teacher to student, farmer to farmer.”