Sweet ‘taters looking good across region

VARDAMAN – While official sweet potato planting reports are still out, it looks like a good year for the crop that has made Vardaman the Sweet Potato Capitol of the World.
Spring rains kept planters from “settin’ ‘taters” early, but a dryer late spring appears to have let farmers get their sweet potatoes slips underground.
“We saw 5,370.5 acres planted in sweet potatoes last year,” said Donna Cliett, with the USDA office out of Houston. “This year we have only had 887 acres certified as planted in sweet potatoes as of right now.”
She explained farmers have been busy planting and the summer growing season will allow them to catch up on government paperwork. Cliett said that number will climb dramatically as farmers head for a July 15 crop insurance filing date and an August 1 certified planting deadline for government assistance.
Cliett said nothing is ever certain in agriculture, but this year’s crop appears to be off to a good start.
On the national level, areas planted in sweet potatoes is estimated at 113,800 acres for the 2010 season, up 4 percent from last year. This data is based on seeded area estimates released by the USDA June 30.
Harvested area is forecast at 110,200 acres, up 14 percent from last year. Additional processing plants and strong demand has led to an increase in planted acres in six of the nine estimating states.
Cool weather and late spring season rains delayed planting in California, but growers expected a good crop with increased volume. Adequate soil moisture conditions in North Carolina, Louisiana and Alabama encouraged growth. Across Mississippi, low prices deterred some growers from planting sweet potatoes and only 12 percent of the crop was planted as of May 30.
Allens Inc., the largest privately held vegetable company in the U.S., announced earlier this month it will expand its Arkansas sweet potato cannery.
In an article in this month Mississippi Business Journal, Bobby D. Ray, senior vice president of Allens’ retail sales and marketing, said consumer demand nationwide is up for sweet potatoes.
“Last year marked a record-breaking year of sweet potato sales for Allens,” said Ray. “Now with the $13.5-million expansion of the company’s plant in Van Buren, Ark., it is expected that we will grow our total sweet potato capacity even more than ever. Allens long standing relationships from growers of sweet potato crops from Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi will ensure the company will continue to meet our growing customers needs.”
Allens sweet potato brands include Princella, Sugary Sam and Trappey’s.
The sweet potato is only distantly related to the potato. The softer, orange variety is commonly marketed as a “yam” across most of the country.
Sweet potatoes are native to South America and were domesticated there at least 5,000 years ago.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) statistics, world production in 2004 was 127,000,000 tons. The majority comes from China, with a production of 105,000,000 tons from 12 million acres. About half of the Chinese crop is used for livestock feed.
In the U.S., North Carolina, the leading state in sweet potato production, provided 38.5 percent of the 2007 U.S. production of sweet potatoes. In 2007, California produced 23 percent, Louisiana 15.9 percent and Mississippi 19 percent of the U.S. total.
Mississippi has about 150 farmers presently growing sweet potatoes on about 8,200 acres, contributing $19 million dollars to the state’s economy. Mississippi’s top five sweet potato producing counties are Calhoun, Chickasaw, Pontotoc, Yalobusha and Panola. The National Sweet Potato Festival is held annually the first week in November in Vardaman.
Sweet potatoes grow well in many farming conditions, have few natural enemies and pesticides are rarely needed. Sweet potatoes are grown on a variety of soils, but thrive in well-drained, light and medium textured soils with a wide pH range. They can be grown in poor soils with little fertilizer.
Sweet potatoes are rich in complex carbohydrates, dietary fiber, beta carotene – a vitamin A equivalent nutrient – vitamin C, and vitamin B6.
Considering fiber content, complex carbohydrates, protein, vitamins A and C, iron and calcium, the sweet potato ranked higher in nutritional value than almost any other vegetable.
Despite the name “sweet”, the tuber may be a beneficial food for diabetics, as preliminary studies on animals have revealed that it helps to stabilize blood sugar levels and to lower insulin resistance.
Taiwanese companies are making alcohol fuel from sweet potato.

Floyd Ingram/Chickasaw Journal