Sweet potato slog

VARDAMAN – Vardaman sweet potatoes are going to be scarce this year.
The record rains have flooded fields and caused the potatoes to rot in the ground. When farmers have been able to get into their fields, the mud has slowed down progress and limited the areas that can be salvaged.
Bill Burdine, a Houston-based agronomist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, estimates 75 percent of the sweet potato crop is ruined in Calhoun and Chickasaw counties, where the majority of the crop is grown in the state.
“Most fields are being abandoned,” he said Tuesday. “Today, it’s looking better than what I had expected, but it’s still nothing like what I had hoped for.”
The culprit – record rains at harvest time. Everywhere from Columbus to Pontotoc to Tupelo is at least 9 inches above average rainfall, according to Luigi Romolo at the Southern Regional Climate Center in Baton Rouge. The rainfall from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15 – up to 18.82 inches in some places in Northeast Mississippi – is the highest on record for the period.
Bruce received 17.12 inches of rain for the period, up 12.06 inches from normal. Calhoun City had 14.59 inches and Van Vleet had 14.3 inches, according to Romolo.
Ninety-one percent of the state’s fields have surplus moisture, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
It’s not good news for sweet potato farmers, who harvest from September to November.
According to the USDA’s weekly weather and crop report, usually 80 percent of the state’s sweet potato crop is harvested by Oct. 18. This year, 29 percent has been harvested.
Hugh Pettit, a sweet potato farmer near Pyland, is one of the many growers who has had his plans changed by the rain. As of Monday, he’d worked three days in the past five weeks, which were prime harvesting days.
When the sun came out Monday, he was using a tractor to harvest the high spots on his fields.
“We’re trying to get them out of the mud before they rot or salvage what we can,” Pettit said. “We’re only getting a percentage of what we normally get because of the mud, but anything we get now is more than we had last week.”
Pettit said the mud makes it harder to dig the potatoes, breaks equipment used to working with drier soil and makes it harder for the workers to spot the potatoes because the spuds are covered in mud.
“We’re trying to do the best we can with what we’ve got,” he said. “Ain’t nothing ideal right now.”
According to the USDA, 22 percent of the state’s sweet potato crop is very poor, 43 percent is poor, 25 percent is fair and 10 percent is good. None of the crop is reported as excellent.
The lack of produce and the poor quality is making sweet potato-related companies look to other sources.

Empty warehouses
Penick Produce in Vardaman usually buys sweet potatoes from about 75 local farmers. Penick prepares the potatoes for processing and sells them to national companies that make baby food, canned products and specialty products like sweet potato patties and fries.
Rob Langston, vice president of Penick, said the company’s warehouses usually are at 90 percent capacity this time of the year. As of Monday, they were at 15 percent capacity.
“Last year, we had up to 20 trucks a day leaving and upwards of 40 trucks a day coming in” on a good day, Langston said. “Now, it’s slow, slow, slow. We haven’t had a truck come in today. We haven’t sent any out today.”
Langston said Penick had to buy potatoes from North Carolina in order to help meet the company’s contractual obligations. Last year, all of his potatoes were from Mississippi. This year, he’s hoping 50 percent of the produce he ships will be from Vardaman-area growers.
“Mr. Penick, he’s 84 and the founder of this company, he said he’s never ever in his entire life seen anything this bad,” Langston said. “It’s not just affecting the farmer. It’s affecting everybody through the food chain. … It affects the livelihood of just about everybody in this whole area.”
Daphna Cook, co-owner of Sweet Potato Sweets in Vardaman, is one of those businesses. Her store revolves around the sweet potato and what it can make. As of this week, she has plenty of pies, sausage balls and boxes of potatoes.
“There’s a chance we won’t have enough potatoes, but we think we’ll be fine,” Cook said.
She is going to freeze more potatoes earlier in the year than she normally does. She also said she is asking her potato supplier, her business partner’s husband, to not throw away any potatoes so Cook can try to salvage them.

Festival still on
There’s also a bit of uncertainty for potato availability at the Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival. Festival co-organizer Maxine Blue said the festival still is slated for Nov. 7, but she’s not sure if there will be potatoes for sale.
“We’re hoping we’ll have that, but we don’t know,” Blue said.
But the poor crop won’t change the sweet potato pie eating contest or the tasting booth, both set for Saturday.
“We’re not changing anything,” Blue said. “We’re just trying to brighten (the farmers’) days … Sometimes the farmers help us with expenses, but we’re not asking for as many donations as we normally do.”
The financial situation will be tough for sweet potato farmers this year, and Burdine said he expects it will cause some of the 100 growers to call it quits.
“I would anticipate we will lose quite a number of our growers just because of the economics of it and them taking such a big hit this year,” Burdine said.

Contact Carlie Kollath at (662) 678-1598 or carlie.kollath@djournal.com.

CITY PRECIPITATION DEPARTURE FROM NORMAL SEASONAL RANKING
Bruce 17.12 inches, up 12.06 inches from normal Wettest since 1946
Calhoun City 14.59 inches, up 9.77 inches from normal Wettest since 1915
Van Vleet 14.3 inches, up 8.89 inches from normal Wettest since 1943
SOURCE: SOUTHERN REGION CLIMATE CENTER

Carlie Kollath/NEMS Daily Journal