With sweet potato harvest expected to swing into high gear following the Labor Day holiday, growers in Mississippi and Louisiana are looking forward to higher prices occasioned by a weather-shortened crop in North Carolina, the nation’s largest producer.

Heavy rains through the growing season have cut into that state’s expected yields, Benny Graves, executive director of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said at the sweet potato field day held at the Pontotoc Ridge/Flatwoods Experiment Station at Algoma, and that could brighten the profit outlook for growers.

“Availability drives the market,” he says, "and prospects for a reduced crop nationally pushed the price “from $15 a bushel to $18.50 a bushel in about three weeks."

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Most of Mississippi’s crop is concentrated around the Calhoun County town of Vardaman, where there a number of packing sheds and shipping facilities, and in adjacent Chickasaw, Pontotoc, Webster, and Grenada Counties, Sweet potatoes have been grown in the area since the early 1900s.

Mississippi ranks second in the nation in sweet potato production, and production last year had an economic value to the state of $78 million, Graves says.

Acreage in the state is down this year, according to figures compiled by Graves and Steve Meyers, northeast regional Extension specialist at Pontotoc, who serves as the state’s sweet potato specialist.sweet potatoes,markets,prices,irrigation,weather,rains

“Last year we had 22,500 planted acres,” Meyers says. “This year, that’s down 18 percent to 18,450 planted acres.

“As with much of the South, our cropping season started cool and wet, with plant beds going out somewhat later than last year. Overall, though, those plant beds look better than might be expected under those circumstances.

“Our first transplanting went out May 25-26, and throughout most of May and first three weeks of June, we had ideal transplanting conditions — good soil moisture, with temperatures in the mid-80s and lows in the upper 60s — for setting plants and getting a good stand and good root set.”

In the last week of June and into July, Meyers says, hot weather and dry soils caused stand reduction in plantings at that time, and “we’ll probably see some reduced set in those plants.

“By and large, the crop looks pretty good. With harvest near, Benny Graves and I estimate that about 20 percent of the crop is marginal to good, and 80 percent good to excellent.

“We’ve seen a lot of hand pulling of weeds. That’s something we expect in sweet potatoes, given that there is a limited number of herbicides available for use in the crop, and for some of the weeds we have in our fields there just isn’t an efficacious herbicide.

“We’ve seen a lot of nutsedge breaking through this year. Dual is really the only thing we have for control, and timing has to be right on target. We’ve also seen a lot of coffeeweed popping through, a lot of cocklebur, and a lot of hophornbeam copperleaf.”

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In the pest sector, Meyers says, “We’ve seen some reniform nematode injury in some fields, causing stunted potatoes.