“All our crops are dryland — we’d have to drill so deep here for a relatively small volume of water that it just isn’t economically feasible to irrigate. So,” he laughs, “we do a lot of praying for rain.

“But, if we can get enough rain to get them up and growing, sweet potatoes and peanuts can get by with less rain water other crops. If we can catch a shower now and then during the growing season, we’re OK. The potatoes are actually sweeter when the weather’s a bit on the dry side. Too much rain will rot them; they just turn to mush — as happened in the record rainfall year of 2009, when we lost 200 acres of potatoes and 100 acres of peanuts.”

Until 1995, the Spencers also grew cotton, but that year Brad says “the bugs ate up the crop, no matter what we sprayed, and potatoes ended up paying the bills for the cotton. We haven’t grown any cotton since.”

Sweet potato production in the Vardaman area continues to grow, Brad says, with expansion into neighboring counties and good demand in both fresh and processing markets.

“The increased emphasis on healthful foods has been a boost,” he says. “Sweet potatoes are high in Vitamin A, beta carotene, and a number of beneficial anti-oxidants and anti-inflammatory nutrients. Even with all the production in this area, there’ll be the occasional year when demand can’t be met and the brokers have to buy potatoes elsewhere.” (North Carolina is the leading sweet potato state.)

They shoot for yield average of 400 to 500 bushels per acre, with 260 bushels of that for consumer field packs. There are three grades: No. 1, No. 2, and Jumbo; those that don’t fit into those grades are processors. No. 1s are the most profitable.

Unlike other row crops that utilize a lot of mechanization, sweet potato production, is very labor-intensive, Brad notes.

“About mid-March, we’ll take whole potatoes from the previous year’s crop to use as seed. (Every two years, we buy some new seed potatoes in order to keep diversity in the gene pool.) We put the seed potatoes in prepared beds, cover them with both black and clear plastic to retain heat, and in three to four weeks sprouts will be pushing up the plastic. We take off the plastic and cover the beds with a mesh fabric that allows water and air penetration, but also helps hold heat.

“Four weeks later, when the sprouts are about 6 inches high, we go in with a blade harvester and cut them off the mother potatoes. We hold them for a couple of days until they begin forming little white roots and are ready for planting.”

Every plant is put into the ground by hand. “We have 8-row and 4-row potato setter machines, which workers ride through the field, placing plants into the soil. Sixteen people ride on the 8-row machine, with four walking behind, and there are 12 people with the 4-row machine, so we’ll have 32-people in the field for planting. We can plant about 30 acres a day.

“We can’t no-till potato ground; they need good, loose soil for planting and harvesting, so we have to till the land well.”