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“When I went away to college, it was not with the thought that I’d return to the farm," says Calhoun County, Miss., sweet potato grower Danny Clark. "A farmer was not what I wanted to be." But 40 years later he's growing the sweet potatoes that his grandfather and father grew.
DANNY CLARK, right, and his son, Eric, during sweet potato harvest. Clark has been growing the crop for 40 years.
Danny Clark’s grandfather, A. H. Cook, was among the early-day farmers who came to the Vardaman, Miss., area from Tennessee in the early 1900s and started growing the sweet potatoes that have, almost a century later, become a major enterprise for the small town and surrounding area.
“My father, Oneal Clark, married one of Mr. Cook’s daughters and started growing sweet potatoes,” he says, as he watches the bustle of harvesting activity on one of his farms, “and I grew up in it.”
Even so, he says, he had no intention of carrying on the family farming lineage.
“When I went away to college at Delta State University, it was not with the thought that I’d return to the farm. A farmer was not what I wanted to be. I received my degree in biology in 1972 and was planning to enter a master’s program that fall. I asked my father if I could help him on the farm that summer to earn money to continue my schooling.
“And that was it for me — when fall came, I knew farming was what I wanted to do. I bought a tractor and started farming, and I’ve been at it for 40 years. I was a partner with Dad until his death; now, that land belongs to my brothers and me. I also have land of my own and rent other land.”
Almost all of the sweet potato operations in this area are owned by families that have been in the business for generations, Clark says. He now has three farms; two that he rents are about 10 miles from his packing shed.
As he enters his 60s, and is beginning to think of retirement somewhere down the line, he is encountering something of a repeat of his own experience with his son, Eric.
“I’ve got enough land that I could expand my potato acreage and make some improvements to my packing shed,” he says, “but Eric says he doesn’t think he wants to be a farmer, so I’m hesitant to commit to that kind of investment.”
Eric, who went to college to major in computer programming and is helping his father with this year’s crop, acknowledges that farming has been good to his father, “But I just don’t think it’s what I want to do.”
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On this sunny autumn day though, issues of succession are on the back burner as four digging rigs move slowly through the field at less than 1 mph, scooping sweet potatoes onto conveyor belts on each side of a trailer, where an 8-person crew sorts them into bins according to grade.
“We have three different grades of sweet potatoes,” Danny says: “No. 1 field pack, which bring the best price; No. 2; and processing/canners. We’ll also get a few bins of jumbos.”
Periodically, the digging machines stop and 1,000 lb. bins of sweet potatoes are forklifted off and stacked in rows, to be loaded on flatbed trailer trucks and hauled a short distance away to Clark’s packing shed.