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Growers see 1999 crop worth $24+ million in wake of N.C. storms

Misfortune meant good year for Mississippi sweet potatoes

VARDAMAN — Last year, primarily as a result of hurricanes that hampered production in North Carolina, sweet potato growers in Mississippi enjoyed a good yield and higher prices.

“Prices went up considerably from $9 or $10 to $12 or $14 — it’s at $16 now,” said Benny Graves, secretary-treasurer of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council and insect disease specialist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture. “Row crops are suffering in Mississippi and the only reason sweet potatoes have done OK is because of difficulties with hurricanes in North Carolina. We know that’s a one-year thing. We don’t know what Mother Nature will throw us next year.”

Two years ago, receipts from sweet potatoes, the tuberous root vegetable that belongs to the same family of plants as the morning glory, totaled approximately $20 million, Graves said.

“With this year’s better prices, receipts totaled more than $24 million,” he said. “We’ll have to crunch numbers to see exactly how much more than that, but growing sweet potatoes is a small agricultural industry that has done well.”

In 1998, about 9,500 acres of sweet potatoes were planted and harvested in Mississippi. Last year, growers added 1,100 acres, surpassing California to become the third largest producer in the U.S. for a total of 10,600 acres.

“Over the past five years, Mississippi growers have slowly increased acreage,” Graves said. “Because we’ve made money this year with decent prices, I suspect you’ll see acreage continue to increase.”

Of the state’s 10,600 acres of sweet potatoes, 9,100 are grown within a 30-mile radius of Vardaman, a pin dot on the map with a population of less than 1,000.

Calhoun County’s well-drained sandy loam and silt loam soils with finely textured subsoils mate well with the sweet produce. The balance of sweet potatoes are planted and harvested in the Mississippi Delta.

Even though Mississippi growers have enjoyed a banner year, diseases and insects continue to plague crops, Graves said.

“This year’s disease problem was bacterial wilt and root rot, and it’s affected our shelf life,” he said.

“Part of it is attributed to a warm winter and storage conditions that were warmer than usual. We are updating our storage and handling facilities, not because of the unusual weather pattern, but to show we’re leaders in the industry. One of our growers just invested $500,000 in a curing facility in Vardaman and I know we’ll see more of that.”

Bacterial wilt and root rot can be severe during bouts of high humidity, excessive rainfall and subsequent saturated soils and can be transmitted from one field to another by drainage water and harvesting equipment.

The main pests sweet potato growers battled were cucumber beetles, wireworms and grubs, he said.

“Our growers, along with the Mississippi State University extension specialists, work together with a strategy to control insects,” he said. “We take a team approach and don’t fight among ourselves. Mississippi growers work well together and it shows in the marketplace. Growers compete against each other, but work together to promote their product.”

In January, Mississippi growers hosted the 38th annual national convention in Tunica, drawing the highest attendance in recorded history, with almost 500 sweet potato growers present.

But so far, sweet potato growers have not banded together nationally to form a marketing association, Graves said.

“We’ve had rounds at national meetings about this hot topic,” he said. “If everyone ate just one more sweet potato a month, it would make a difference. If you look at any nutrition or health guide, especially one that mentions cancer-preventative foods, sweet potatoes are tops on the list. That’s based primarily on its content of beta-carotene and fiber, vitamins A and C and other key ingredients. For now, though, sweet potatoes are still usually reserved for holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynne Wilbanks Jeter at lwjeter@yahoo.com, mbj@msbusiness.com or (601) 364-1018.

About Lynne W. Jeter

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