After two challenging years in Mississippi sweet potato fields, farmers are hoping for a problem-free harvest over the next few weeks.
Stephen Meyers, Extension sweet potato specialist based at the Mississippi State University Pontotoc Ridge-Flatwoods Branch Experiment Station, said growers are cautiously optimistic as harvest begins.
“I’m hearing a wide range of yields from early harvests, which began the third week of August this year,” Meyers said. “Much of the crop transplanted in May was exposed to abnormally cool weather. On the opposite end of the spectrum, hot, dry conditions in June caused some poor stands. Other fields suffered from too much rain in July and August.”
Meyers said the state has 28,400 acres of sweet potatoes, up from 25,200 last year. Mississippi is second to North Carolina, which has about 90,000 acres, in sweet potato production.
“Some acreage increases are happening among existing growers, but some new growers are row crop farmers who have started producing sweet potatoes because of poor commodity prices,” he said. “That has created more business for equipment fabricators because sweet potatoes require specialized transplanting and harvesting equipment.”
Meyers said some producers have reported damage from wireworms and other pests, which has been severe in some fields. This problem may result in more potatoes going to processing, which also cuts into profits. Meyers said the overall quality of the 2016 crop is good at the harvest midway point, but he acknowledged that there is still a long way to go before the season concludes.
“Sweet potato harvest is a marathon, not a sprint,” he said. “Most producers will finish by the end of October, just in time to ramp up packing operations for the Thanksgiving holiday.”
Extension agricultural economist Alba Collart said Mississippi U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes average $23.19 per 40-pound carton wholesale. Last year, those cartons would have sold for about $23.27.
Collart said consumer demand for sweet potatoes has shown marked improvement in recent years.
“Consumption of sweet potatoes in the United States has increased from about 4.2 pounds per person in 2000 to about 7.5 pounds in 2014,” she said. “Interest in organic sweet potatoes is also growing.”
The economist said production value of organic sweet potatoes is increasing, mainly in California and North Carolina. This increase in production value is generating interest in organic production in Mississippi and other states that produce sweet potatoes.
Chase Rimmer, manager of operations and procurement for Penick Produce in Vardaman, said his company’s organic acreage increased from 450 acres last year to more than 1,000 this year. He said the company is not likely to expand much next year.
“The price for organic potatoes is higher, but yields are lower,” he said.
Rimmer said growers converting from cotton to potatoes will face a steep learning curve.
“The two crops have totally different equipment and production systems, including labor,” he said.