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Sweet potato crop looking 'slightly above average'

ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — Mississippi’s soil and climate are ideally suited to producing sweet potatoes, a crop that gives the state a No. 2 national ranking.

Harvest began about Aug. 20 on Mississippi’s 22,500 acres of sweet potatoes. North Carolina comes in first with 64,000 acres. Acreage in both states varied little from last year. The Mississippi crop was valued at nearly $66.5 million in 2011.

Bill Burdine, Mississippi State University Extension Service area agronomy agent in Chickasaw County, works with sweet potatoes. He said the state’s overall crop is slightly above average and yields are consistent.

“Our sweet potato crop is looking good overall,” Burdine said. “Late rains lowered the soil temperature and reduced some of the growth of the plants. Some potatoes in low-lying areas of poorly drained fields rotted, but this was more of a scare than an actual loss.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated the crop was 46 percent harvested by Sept. 23, which put it slightly ahead of schedule for the last five years.

Benny Graves, executive director of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council in Vardaman, said the state’s average yield is 275 bushels per acre of the desirable size No. 1s and No. 2s. This year’s harvest should be in that range.

“There are some pretty potatoes going into the bins. Mississippi growers grade and pack a really consistent, high quality sack of sweet potatoes,” Graves said.

The majority of the state’s sweet potatoes are grown within 40 miles of Vardaman. Graves said the right soil and climate, several generations of sweet potato growing knowledge and a good industry infrastructure combine to make the area ideal for sweet potato production.

Mississippi producers typically grow enough sweet potatoes to sell their product year-round. By the time bins are nearly empty, the new crop is coming in from the fields. North Carolina, with its larger production, had two years of exceptionally good crops. Many of their potatoes are still in storage, keeping prices low, said Ken Hood, Extension agricultural economist.

“Sweet potato prices range from $15 to $16 per 40-pound box for No. 1 grade at the packing house in Mississippi,” Hood said. “No. 2s are $10 to $11 a box, while Jumbos are $8 to $9 a box.”

Hood said Mississippi missed the drought that decimated much of the nation’s agriculture. Yields looked to be well above average before the late rains reduced them by as much as 20 percent.

“Overall, the increase in yields in the other 80 percent will have us a little above average for the total crop,” Hood said.

Demand for sweet potatoes continues to grow, and new products are arriving on the market. Hood said Americans now consume about 5.7 pounds of sweet potatoes per person each year.

“Fresh market potatoes remain strong, and the increase in consumption in value-added potato products continues to drive the demand,” Hood said.



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