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Sweet potato harvest good despite drought
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Mississippi sweet potato farmers were not expecting a good crop after this year's drought, but producers are pleasantly surprised as harvest nears completion.
Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said the crop should be fair to good overall. The drought should make the potatoes sweeter than normal.
“We're not going to have a bin-buster because of the drought stress, but quality is good,” Graves said.
Rains in early October helped fill out the crop that survived the drought, and then heavy rains across the sweet potato-growing region of the state in mid-October softened the soil for harvest. Summer drought conditions delayed planting and pushed back harvest.
“Setting the crop out was a struggle because we were waiting on moisture,” Graves said. “It is amazing that our farmers were able to get them in the ground and up.”
Sweet potatoes are planted in fields as transplants. While a transplanting machine does the bulk of the work, it is a labor-intensive process as each of the 12,000 transplants per acre must be readied by hand. Mississippi planted 16,500 acres of sweet potatoes this year, which was the industry's goal and matched the acreage planted in recent years.
“We normally have our crop in the ground by July 15, but this year we finished up by Aug. 10,” Graves said. “It takes 90 days to grow a sweet potato, so we need November to be warm with no big freezes or we'll lose some acres.”
Bill Burdine, sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said he expects producers to lose much of the late-planted crop to cold weather.
“We had about 4,000 to 5,000 acres planted in late July and early August, and a lot of those acres won't mature before frost,” Burdine said. “If the potatoes don't receive enough heat units, they won't grow to market size.”
Burdine said the drought kept disease and insect pressures to a minimum, but the resulting hard ground has reduced the quality of some of the crop.
“The dry soil does not give the sweet potatoes as uniform a shape, but the slow growth did make the sweet potatoes sweeter,” Burdine said. “Producers were expecting a bigger loss than what they have seen, so they are pleased with what they are taking out of the fields.”
Graves, who is also a sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, said consumption and market demand are up.
“Our biggest area of growth is in food service,” Graves said. “We're selling a lot of sweet potatoes into Canada, and we're shipping some to the United Kingdom and mainland Europe.”
New products and venues are part of the increased consumption of sweet potatoes. Graves pointed to MSU's new sweet potato ice cream, sweet potato fries in some restaurants and the freezer section of grocery stores, and a pilot effort in the Southeast that is serving sweet potatoes in the school lunch program.