ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — In spite of recent rains, the state’s sweet potato growers have a lot to be excited about this harvest season.
“Growers set the majority of the crop back in late May and June under ideal conditions,” said Stephen Meyers, sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “We had good root set, which means the number of roots per plant has been good.”
Although it takes longer to grow sweet potatoes to full size when there are a lot of roots, the time invested is worth it. Most of this year’s crop so far is U.S. Department of Agriculture No. 1 grade, which sells the best on the fresh market, Meyers said.
Yields per acre are averaging about 300 bushels per acre. The crop was 32 percent harvested by Sept. 22, according to the USDA’s Sept. 23 Crop Progress and Condition Report.
MSU Extension agricultural economist Ken Hood said a 40-pound box of No. 1 grade sweet potatoes is bringing $17-18, which is up $2 per box over last year’s price. Larger potatoes are also selling well.
“Jumbo-size potatoes are going for premium prices right now because they’re scarce,” Hood said. “That might change as the season goes on, because they longer they are in the ground the bigger they get. But a lot of people prefer the jumbos for home use because of their versatility.”
Meyers said weeds are an issue every year because few herbicides can be used for control in this crop. Most growers pull weeds by hand twice a year.
“Insect pressure has been pretty light until recently, when we’ve seen an increase in army worms and cucumber beetles,” he said. “End tip rot is a disease that shows up in storage, so we’re keeping an eye out for it.”
Wild animals have discovered an appetite for sweet potatoes, too.
“Deer are problematic for a number of our growers,” he said. “They eat the foliage, but they know when the potatoes are ready, and the deer will start digging up the sweet potatoes. Wild hogs are becoming more of a problem as well.”
Several Mississippi growers tried a new variety this year and so far are pleased with the results.
“We’re seeing a lot more acres planted in a variety from Louisiana State University called Orleans,” Meyers said. “In many ways it is like the Beauregard variety commonly grown here, but it is supposed to have a more uniform shape.”
Benny Graves, executive director of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council in Vardaman, said 104 growers planted 18,400 acres in sweet potatoes this year, down about 18 percent from last year.
“It’s basic supply and demand,” Graves said. “Market prices were down here and in other parts of the country, so some sweet potato growers switched to row crops, predominately soybeans. We’ve already seen a price increase for sweet potatoes this year because of that acreage reduction.”
Like Meyers, Graves is optimistic about the potential for the Orleans variety and the crop in general.
“We’re seeing good yields and good quality eating potatoes,” Graves said. “The Orleans are consistent in size, shape and texture. They’re also consistent from field to field, and we like that in a new variety.”
Graves said the industry is finding new ways to generate extra income, particularly through different types of packaging. Traditionally, shoppers select loose sweet potatoes from a large bin.
“We want consumers to have more options,” he said. “Bagged sweet potatoes are a hot item, such as 3-, 5-, and 10-pound bags. Another trend is shrink-wrapped individual potatoes. To meet buyers’ increased focus on food safety, packing houses are being upgraded and certified. It’s an exciting time in the industry.”
Even with the decline in acreage this year, Mississippi ranks No. 2 nationally in sweet potato production, second only to North Carolina.
The annual Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival will start at 8 a.m. Nov. 2.