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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.
Vardaman is sweet potato capital
Mississippi is the second largest sweet potato-producing state in the U.S. behind North Carolina, and almost all the state’s acreage is centered around Vardaman, which has an official population of just over 1,300. That more than doubles with the 1,800 seasonal workers that help to plant, tend, harvest, pack, and ship the crop, valued at some $75 million annually.
In 2012, 104 commercial sweet potato growers planted 22,400 acres in Mississippi, most of that in Calhoun and surrounding Pontotoc, Grenada, Webster, Chickasaw, and Lafayette Counties.The typical 20-30 acre farm of the 1940s has grown to several hundred acres for most of the local farm family operations. Some have more than 1,000 acres.
The Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, which Clark serves as president, says Native Americans were already growing sweet potatoes when Columbus came to these shores in 1492. The crop has been grown in the southeastern United States from as early as 1648. (The sweet potato is technically not a potato, nor even a distant cousin. Potatoes are tubers; sweet potatoes are roots, and are actually a part of the morningglory family.)
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The main Vardaman thoroughfare, Mississippi Highway 8, bustles with sweet potato activity during all seasons, especially during the fall harvest. There are several sweet potato packing sheds located along the highway within the city limits, and many other family-run packing sheds are located on the outskirts of town, including two of the largest grower/shipper operations. A specialty bakery in Vardaman, Sweet Potato Sweets, ships its delicious products nationwide daily.
Each year, the week-long Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival kicks off the first Saturday in November, attracting 10,000 to 20,000 people, who participate in a variety of activities and enjoy sweet potato treats. (For information: vardamansweetpotatofestival.org)
The Mississippi Sweet Potato Council was founded in 1964 to promote Mississippi Sweet Potatoes and to educate growers on the latest practices to improve their product and their livelihood. It is one of the oldest agricultural organizations in the state of Mississippi.