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Sweet potato farmers seeing bounce-back season

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — This year is shaping up to be a sweet one for Mississippi sweet potato growers, a total change from the rains that destroyed 75 percent of last year’s crop at harvest.

Benny Graves, sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s Bureau of Plant Industry, said, “We have extremely high-quality potatoes coming out of the ground. They’ve been grown and harvested under ideal conditions. Yields are a bit above average in a lot of cases, and I haven’t seen this quality in a number of years.”

The state has 19,200 acres of sweet potatoes this year, down 500 acres from last year, and 90 percent of these acres are within 40 miles of Vardaman. A few fields are in Humphreys and Tate counties.

Despite the hot, dry weather across most of the state, weather conditions have been excellent for sweet potatoes. Timely, localized rains provided all the moisture the crop needed this year. The extreme heat of late July and August slowed the potatoes’ growth. Graves said though potatoes did not grow much during the heat, growth resumed with the first cool night.

As of mid-September, rains were holding off as the crop was being harvested. By Sept. 17, about 50 percent of the crop was out of the ground.

Yields are averaging about 275-300 bushels per acre, up from the state’s average of 250-275 bushels an acre. In mid-September, sweet potatoes were bringing good prices at $19.50 per 40-pound carton.

ConAgra is building a new french fry plant in Louisiana that will solely produce sweet potato fries. Graves said this plant will demand a large quantity of sweet potatoes, which will be very good for the industry.

Bill Burdine, Mississippi State University Extension Service sweet potato specialist, said Mississippi growers were able to capture some market premiums because of the early harvest.

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