Sweet potatoes, other truck crops make big economic impact in state

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Published: April 18,2005

The production of fruits and vegetables traditionally called truck crops is alive and well in Mississippi. Of these crops, sweet potatoes are the number one in value with a $448-million economic price tag last year. Some 16,500 acres of sweet potatoes were harvested from 101 farms that grow the popular vegetable.

In the Delta, 2,000 acres are devoted to growing the product. The largest concentration of production, however, is a 30-mile radius around Vardaman in Calhoun County. Bennie Graves works with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce (MDAC) Bureau of Plant Industry, mainly with sweet potatoes. He also serves as secretary-treasurer of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.

“Mississippi is known for good quality sweet potatoes,” he said. “There’s been a lot of expansion in the last few years.”
National marketing, a Web site and the popular Sweet Potato Festival held in Vardaman the first Saturday in November each year are helping to spread the word about this Mississippi vegetable.

Stephen Bailey, 31, is a young sweet potato farmer continuing a family business begun by his grandfather, Henry Edward Bailey, in 1946. Now, Stephen, who serves as president of the Sweet Potato Council, runs the commercial operation with his uncle, Danny Bailey.

“We average harvesting 400 acres,” he said. “Business has been up and down the last few years. Last year was down because we had 18 inches of rain in June, right in the middle of planting time. We missed 27 days straight.”

It took 14 intermittent days to set out the sweet potato slips, and the planting was not finished until July. Bailey said the resulting average price and average yield did not add up for a good year.

He and other sweet potato farmers try to combat the weather’s whims by finding ways to complete the planting-growing cycle faster and by investing in improved equipment. “We need to get it out of the ground as quick as we can,” he said. “We try to be as efficient as we can.”

Bailey, an agriculture science graduate of Auburn University, points out that Mississippi is the second-largest state in the nation in sweet potato acreage and third in production. California has the highest yield. Their cost of yield is higher because growers must use irrigation for watering.

“So, I think it equals out,” he said. “In recent years, acreage has more than doubled in the state. I have a positive outlook about production because people have to eat, and we’re spending time and money trying to add value to sweet potatoes. I feel real encouraged with what we’re doing.”

Guy Feltenstein, director of MDAC’s Fruits and Vegetables Division, says the list is endless of crops that can be grown in Mississippi. A few of those include blueberries, strawberries, cantaloupes, tomatoes, cabbage, turnips and collards. The production of seedless watermelons is a crop that has become big business with 18-wheelers hauling them to many states.

“Green County lost $1.2 million of seedless watermelons because of Hurricane Ivan,” he said. “The growers have crop insurance, but they and the consumers have felt the effects.”

MDAC works with farmers throughout the state and operates three regional offices called fruit and vegetable sheds. These are located in Lucedale, Bassfield and Booneville to help growers order seeds, fertilizers and containers. These offices also manage the revolving fund, a program that no other state has.

Farmers and buyers sign agreements with MDAC for the state agency to act as the middleman. After a farmer ships a load of produce to a store or warehouse, he faxes the acceptance notification to the Bassfield Fruit and Vegetable Shed from which a check is sent to the farmer. MDAC collects from the stores and wholesalers.

“The farmers love it. It gets them out of the collection business, and they don’t have to wait for their money,” Feltenstein said. “We have had no problems with the program.”

The Farm-to-School Program is also popular with farmers and helps promote their crops. Working with the State Department of Education and school nutritionists, the program is also fostering better nutrition for children. MDAC provides a list of produce that is grown in the state, and schools sign up for what they want to receive. The produce is delivered to one location in Jackson and distributed from there.

“It’s another great program, and a market the growers didn’t have two years ago,” he said. “We have colorful posters in the schools showing farm fields and children eating what is grown. It shows children where produce comes from.”

This program is run by the U.S. Department of Defense, who began it to provide fresh produce at military installations, and they pay MDAC to administer the program in the state. A new twist may be coming up for the program. “We will be attending a meeting in May with the Department of Defense to work out a swap with North Carolina,” Feltenstein said. “They will send us apples and we’ll send them seedless watermelons.”

Organic farming is getting a start in Mississippi, too, and giving truck crop farmers an alternative way of growing.

“I think it will take off here although it’s hard with our climate to grow produce without pesticides,” said Kevin Riggin who heads the program for MDAC. “We are doing inspections now. We go out and certify that the seeds are organic, check the equipment, and take soil and water samples.”

He said organic farming is growing at a rate of 2% to 4% each year, making it the fastest-growing form of agriculture.

Contact MBJ contributing Lynn Lofton at mbj@msbusiness.com.

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