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Sweet potatoes finish at weather's mercy
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi's sweet potato crop will finish like it started: at the mercy of the weather.
Bill Burdine, area agronomist in Chickasaw County with Mississippi State University's Extension Service, said above-average rainfall in late May and early June divided the 2004 sweet potatoes into two distinct crops.
"The first half of the crop struggled through saturated soils that damaged roots and hurt the final shape and quality of the potatoes," Burdine said. "The second half, planted much later, had to contend with growth delays from record-low temperatures and now awaits a late-season rain to improve harvest conditions."
Burdine said temperatures in late July and early August reached as low as 49 degrees at one weather station in his area. The crop basically stopped growing for two weeks.
"Now the biggest concern is that the crop might get a frost before potatoes reach their optimum sizes," he said. "We need a 1- to 2-inch rain to increase size and to make it easier to harvest the potatoes without damaging the skins."
Benny Graves is the sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce's Bureau of Plant Industry. He said harvest quality has varied and yields have been below average.
"Yields are running around 220 bushels per acre, but we would like to see them around 275," Graves said. "The good news is prices have been good as the consumer market has been expanding in recent years."
Graves said Mississippi growers have worked hard to meet market demands. They have built new temperature-controlled storage facilities so they can maintain potatoes throughout the year, and buyers never have to look elsewhere.
"Three or four years ago, our growers could sell cured sweet potatoes until the first of June or so and then buyers would look to other states and rely on them for potatoes," he said.
Graves said innovations in packing equipment have enabled growers to market consistent sizes to restaurant chains that sell baked sweet potatoes as a regular menu item. The industry also has enjoyed an expansion into food service markets.
"The best way to support this state crop is for everyone to eat just one sweet potato each week. The national per capita consumption is 4.5 pounds a year; personally, I eat 30 to 40 pounds because they are so good and so good for you," Graves said.
Mississippi's premier method of promoting this state product is the Sweet Potato Festival that begins in Vardaman each year on the first Saturday in November. Located in the heart of the state's 15,700 acres of sweet potatoes, the event attracts thousands of people to sample products and take part in events dedicated to sweet potatoes.
Public events begin with the arts and crafts festival from 8 a.m. until 3 p.m on Nov. 6. Events continue throughout the following week and culminate with the judging of original sweet potato recipes and the festival banquet on Nov. 13. For more information, call (662) 682-7559.