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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.
Fewer acres this year
According to figures compiled by Benny Graves, executive director of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, and Steve Meyers, northeast regional Extension specialist at Pontotoc, who serves as the state’s sweet potato specialist, the state’s weather-reduced crop this year was 18,450 acres, down about 18 percent from last year. Acreage in neighboring Louisiana was down by 25 percent to 7,500 acres, according to Mavis Finger, Louisiana State University AgCenter sweet potato specialist at Winnsboro, La.
“Since they’re sold through brokers, I don’t have a brand name for my potatoes,” Clark says. “We just pack them in cartons with the buyer’s brand.”
With cooling facilities, Clark says, cured potatoes can be held the year-round. “I only have one cooling room, so normally I’ll have all of mine moved out by the following June or July.”
Peak demand periods for sweet potatoes are Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas. “With reduced acres in Mississippi and Louisiana, and with the problems in North Carolina, the nation’s biggest producer, we may see some fairly strong prices,” he says.
Most of the Mississippi crop was planted late this year. “We didn’t set the first potato plant until June 6, and we finished July 5,” Clark says. We normally start mid-May, if the weather is OK. If it’s cold and winds are blowing, a lot of the plants will die. If the ground is warm and moist, they’ll start growing the minute they’re planted.
‘We save seed each year and bed them out in the spring for transplants. We’ll start bedding about March 1, depending on weather. We plant the Beauregard variety, which has been very good for us. This year, we also planted a couple of acres of Orleans, a new variety, to see how it would perform.”
Clark also grows 350-400 acres of soybeans, and each year rotates some of his acreage between the two crops. “I’ll vary sweet potato acres from year to year,” he says, “depending on the price outlook. I’ve had larger potato acreages in the past, but when soybeans started getting in the $13 to $14 range, that looked pretty attractive — and the labor requirement is far less.”
Insect problems for his sweet potatoes, he says, are mainly are cucumber beetles, wireworms, and grubs. “We incorporate Belay and Brigade at planting for insect control. We had varying amounts of insect damage in some fields this year, but in others we had none.
“Aside from insect pests, deer are a big problem — they’ll eat the vines in the spring and they’ll paw up potatoes in the fall. For the first time this spring, we also had a problem with wild geese eating the new plants. Between geese and deer, we lost quite a few potatoes. Some growers have had problems with wild hogs, but thankfully, so far, we have not.”
For weeds, he uses a preemerge application of Command and Dual Magnum.
He soil tests for fertility, but says his basic fertilizer mix is 45 lbs. of nitrogen, 100-125 lbs. of phosphate, and 200 lbs. of potash. “We try and keep a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, and add lime as the soil test indicates.”
In addition to the two digging rigs, Clark’s equipment lineup includes a devining machine, two flatbed trailer trucks, and two forklift loaders — plus “several thousand” of the large wooden bins for transporting and storing potatoes.
“I haven’t bought any new bins in a while,” he says. “We repair them, as needed — but I expect they’re now $60 to $65 each, so that’s quite an investment right there. Each will hold about 1,000 pounds, and depending on truck size, we’ll load 28 to 40 on a trailer to move them to storage.”