Auspicious sweet potato harvest winds down
STARKVILLE, Miss. -- Lorin Harvey has heard from several Mississippi sweet potato growers that the quality of this year’s crop is the best they have seen in 20 years.
“The high quality of the crop is what stands out to me this year,” said Harvey, sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “We have to see how things hold up in storage, but I have high hopes.”
Harvey said he expects the crop’s final total acreage to be around 28,500 acres this year. This amount is slightly less than what he had anticipated before dry, hot conditions took hold in June, leaving very little natural moisture for potatoes that were transplanted after May.
“Transplanting started as planned in May with good conditions, but we saw a 30-day period starting early June with temps between 90 and sometimes hotter than 100 degrees and no meaningful rainfall,” Harvey said. “These are almost the exact opposite conditions of the 2021 growing season.”
The dry spell greatly impacted sweet potato stands in fields that were transplanted during this time as soil surface temperatures reached 160 degrees.
“The early-transplanted crop looks great, but the same can’t be said for later transplanted material, which suffered from severe heat stress and lack of moisture,” Harvey said. “Overall, I think the crop is going to be above average due to the early transplanted crop yields.
“I have not been made aware of any major insect or disease issues this year,” he added. “I’ve seen a few cases of russet crack, but I think the crop quality looks so good that, when you do see something, it sticks out more than usual.”
Yield is measured in bushels per acre of potatoes. The three-year average from 2018 to 2020 was about 440 bushels per acre, with 260 bushels per acre meeting enough standards in quality to be labeled U.S. No. 1. Harvey said the statewide average this year could be closer to 500 bushels per acre, with 275 bushels per acre graded No. 1.
The average price this year for a 40-pound carton of No. 1 sweet potatoes is $24.50 -- 13 cents higher than last year’s average.
“The most recent estimate of annual average per capita availability is 6.7 pounds of sweet potatoes per person in 2020,” said MSU Extension agricultural economist Alba Collart. “U.S. consumption of sweet potatoes followed a declining trend between 1965 and 1999, and an overall increasing trend between 2000 and 2020. However, that trend was flatter between 2010 and 2020.”
Mississippi ranks second among U.S. states in sweet potato production; only North Carolina grows more. The industry here, however, is mostly confined to north Mississippi, with Calhoun and Chickasaw counties responsible for a majority of the crop. Production also takes place in Humphreys, Montgomery, Panola, Pontotoc, Tallahatchie, Tate, Webster and Yalobusha counties.
“These two counties have a loamy soil type that is very conducive to growing quality sweet potatoes: good nutrient supply, root growth isn’t restricted, decent water holding capacity,” Harvey said. “It’s also where most of the infrastructure has been established.”