By Errol Castens
ALGOMA – The best news growers got at Thursday’s Sweet Potato Field Day was what they already knew: Even though the cool, wet spring had delayed plantings, the mild summer has provided excellent growing conditions.
“Overall those planting beds look better than could have been expected,” said Stephen Meyers, specialist with Mississippi State University’s Extension Service, which hosted the event at its Pontotoc Ridge/Flatwoods experiment station.
Heavy rains in North Carolina – the nation’s biggest sweet potato producer – already have diminished that state’s crop, enhancing prospects for Mississippi and Louisiana producers to have an even more profitable year.
“What drives markets is availability,” said Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council. “They went from $15 a bushel to $18.50 in about three weeks.”
Most of the state’s sweet potato crop is concentrated in Calhoun, Chickasaw and Pontotoc counties.
“Mississippi is the second largest producer of sweet potatoes in America,” Graves said. “We have 18,000 acres of sweet potatoes planted this year. Sweet potatoes have been a staple of the Vardaman area since 1910.”
Last year’s crop, he said, was worth $78 million in economic value to the state. It was worth even more to consumers, he added.
“If you’re interested in eating healthily, at some point you’re going to add sweet potatoes to your diet,” Graves said. “Here in Mississippi, we feed the world.”
Research findings at Thursday’s exhibition included new cultivars, experimental methods of limiting harvest damage and a variety of efforts to combat plant diseases, weeds and damaging insects.
Hugh Pettit, who grows 120 acres of sweet potatoes near Houston, said he was looking for better data on weed control.
“I actually quit using Dual (herbicide) because it was so iffy on the damage it was causing,” he said. “I was seeing the rates they were using compared to what I’ve used in the past.”
Louis Sanford, a Delta farmer who raises 25 to 50 acres of sweet potatoes, had the same focus.
“I wanted to hear about all the research they’re doing, especially on weed control,” he said. “We’ve got some herbicide-resistant weeds, and I wanted to see what they’ve got over here.”
Greg Bohach, MSU vice president of agriculture, forestry and veterinary medicine, said ag research is crucial to feeding an ever-growing population.
“By 2050 there will be nine billion people,” he said, “mostly in areas of the world that are very poor.”