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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.
Harvest through October
“We started digging Sept. 16,” he says, “and if weather is good, we’ll probably continue through the end of October. Right now, the ground is very dry and we could use an inch of rain to mellow the soil for digging.
“But we sure don’t want a repeat of last fall, when we had too much rain and we were digging until nearly Thanksgiving, much of the time in mud. We had quite a bit of rotting after we got the potatoes into storage because we couldn’t get enough air circulation through the bins. We lost quite a few potatoes.
“My cousin, Norman Clark, is helping me today. We’re running my two digging rigs, another that Norman loaned to me, and a fourth that he brought because he wasn’t digging. With the four diggers, in a good day, we can harvest about 10 acres.
‘There are eight people on each trailer, and with truck drivers, forklift operators, etc., we have about 40 people in our crew today. When the packing shed is in operation, starting about Nov. 1, we’ll have 15-20 people working there two to three days each week.”
Sweet potato production is “very hands-on labor-intensive,” Clark says. “When we’re planting in the spring, each transplant has to be placed by hand, potatoes have to be sorted by hand when we’re harvesting, and then they have to be further sorted and packed by hand when we’re shipping.
“Most of my labor is local, mostly women, and a number of them have been with me for many years. A lot of growers in the area use H2A workers, who are mostly Hispanic and work seasonally.”
About a week before harvest, Clark says, “We’ll come in with a devining machine, which has coulters that clip off the vines so they won’t hang up in the digging machines. This also toughens the skin of the potatoes so they’re less subject to scratches and cuts when we’re digging.”
The digging machine runs a blade under the soil and loosens it so the potatoes can be scooped up onto conveyor belts that take them to the sorting platform, where workers do a preliminary sort according to size and grade.
“You’ll hear all kinds of yield estimates,” Clark says, “but we feel if we can get 400 to 450 bushels per acre, we’re doing OK. Of that, we like to get 50 percent to 60 percent No. 1s, about 20 percent No. 2s, and the rest processing grade.”
From the fields, the loaded bins are trucked to his 20,000 square foot storage facility for curing. They’re held there until orders come in, at which time they’re washed and packed in cartons for shipping. “We usually crank up the packing shed operation about Nov. 1,” he says, “by which time we hope to be finished harvesting.
“I sell the bulk of my potatoes through brokers, at an agreed-upon price plus a $2 per carton packing fee. Some go to local brokers, others to out-of-state brokers. I expect we’ll have some North Carolina buyers coming here this fall because their crop was reduced considerably by the heavy rains that have plagued the Southeast.”