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Sweet potato industry planning for future disasters

Two years removed from the worst disaster they had ever experienced in history, the state’s sweet potato growers are brimming with optimism. Perhaps more than a half-dozen farmers will put in a crop this year for the first time, and market prices are solid.

Still, growers learned a lesson from 2009, when adverse weather wiped out roughly 70 percent of the state’s crop, and they are planning for potential future disasters.

Dr. Bill Burdine, area sweet potato specialist in Chickasaw County with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, has spearheaded an effort to develop a new crisis management program for sweet potatoes. The plan would establish an emergency response team made up of professionals from numerous disciplines, lending their expertise to help mitigate a crisis.

Burdine said the team would respond to all types of disasters, from natural ones as seen in 2009 to food-borne illnesses to a shut down of the petroleum industry. He said work on the new program has been ongoing for approximately a year, and he hopes to have it finalized and in place next month.

“Our aim is to have a program that helps protect our growers from crises like we saw two years ago,” Burdine said.

He said he has piggybacked the effort with the State of North Carolina. It developed a crisis response program following a food-borne illness scare a couple of years ago that was originally linked to tomatoes grown in that state. Further investigation proved the tomatoes were not grown in North Carolina.

“By that time, the damage was done. People quit buying tomatoes from North Carolina,” Burdine said.

When asked if he ever worried that the 2009 disaster would be the end to Mississippi’s sweet potato industry, Burdine emphatically said no. He was concerned that the industry would lose growers, which it did, but he was confident that the growers would rebound.

Fortunately, he was right. The losses of 2009 drove up market prices, and 2010 saw a few new growers added. So far, 2011 looks as if it will outstrip last year.

Six or seven new growers are expected this year, according to Benny Graves, executive director of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council. That would bring the number of Mississippi sweet potato farmers to approximately 105.

Growers are expected to plant nearly 21,000 acres of sweet potatoes this year, up roughly 2,000 acres from 2010.

So far, the 2011 crop is looking good — at least the first one anyway. Sweet potatoes are unique among row crops in that growers must plant and harvest twice every year. The first crop is planted in the spring and serves as seed stock for the second crop. The first crop produces transplants, or slips, which are planted in the spring, harvested in the early summer and are used for seed for the market crop that is harvested in the fall.

The first “transplant” crop is covered with plastic to keep the soil warm and moist. The plastic is removed once the slips emerge. It takes approximately six weeks for the transplants to reach 10 to 12 inches tall, when they are harvested.

Burdine said slips should be emerging soon, and weather has been ideal for growers, who are primarily concentrated in Calhoun, Chickasaw, Webster, Grenada and Yalobusha counties.

“I’m optimistic about this year,” said Graves. “We’re looking good — certainly much, much better than in 2009.”

While Graves said he wished 2009 had not occurred, it resulted in some positives. Already a close-knit community, sweet potato growers banded together to survive the crisis.

“Banks wouldn’t touch us (following 2009),” Graves said. “Some of the stronger growers actually financed some of the weaker ones. That was a very unique situation.”

Burdine said this was not a totally selfless act. The more product raised in Mississippi, the more bargaining power the industry has to sell its potatoes.

Raising sweet potatoes is expensive and labor intensive. Crews must scoop up and crate the slips, with between 11,000 and 13,000 slips required to plant an acre of sweet potatoes.

Farmers utilize a mechanical planter to bed the transplants, but the machine requires two workers per row.

Harvesting the final crop requires more labor. There are two methods — bucket crews, who harvest by hand, and two-row harvesters, which still requires workers to remove the potatoes from the vine and to sort the product into bins by size.

“There are human fingerprints all over every transplant and every potato harvested,” Graves said.

This year’s optimism is somewhat tempered by spiraling fuel costs. Sweet potato farmers are especially vulnerable to energy costs. The product can be stored for nearly a year-and-a-half, and require air conditioning and heat to stave off spoilage.

Even when energy costs are down, sweet potato growers face significant production costs. On average, sweet potatoes cost $2,000 to $2,500 per acre to produce.

However, at press time processing lines were reported in full operation as the industry worked to meet the Easter rush for sweet potatoes.

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