Timely rains in July and now during sweet potato harvest have been the keys to any success Mississippi's growers have had during this second consecutive dry summer.
Bill Burdine, sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, said rains that passed through the state in early July were essential for the early sweet potato crop. Yields and quality have been slightly lower for the midseason potatoes.
“Most early yields were in excess of 300 bushels per acre, which is good. The potatoes had excellent shape and clean, smooth skin. Now, potatoes are showing more damage from white fringed beetles, crickets and sugarcane beetles,” Burdine said.
“With minimal rains since that first week of July, the midseason crop is a little smaller,” he said. “Growers are waiting an extra week to remove vines in fields that should be ready for harvest. Digging will start three to seven days after vines are removed.”
Hurricane Humberto brought about 3 or more inches of rain to the state Sept. 13 and 14.
“This rain was perfect,” Burdine said. “It fell slow enough that nearly every drop soaked in and helped potatoes begin sizing up. This was easily a million-dollar rain for sweet potato growers.”
Burdine said the later-planted potatoes might run short on the heat units needed to mature and be at risk of excessive rains that could hamper harvests.
Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said all farmers walk a tight line between too little and too much rain. Excessive rains or the extreme opposite, a drought, complicates potato harvest.
“Harvest typically begins the last of August and finishes around the first of November. The further harvest extends into November, the more risk there is from rains,” Graves said. “The good news is that there were very few late-planted fields in Mississippi.”
Graves said the state's growers expanded their acreage from 16,000 acres last year to about 20,000 acres this year.
“The price and demand prompted the acreage expansion. There was zero carryover from last year,” he said. “More good news for Mississippi growers is the expanding market into the United Kingdom and the European Union in general.”
Mississippi growers pay tribute to their crop at the annual Sweet Potato Festival held in Vardaman on the first Saturday in November. Located in the heart of the state's sweet potato farms, the event attracts thousands to sample products and take part in events dedicated to sweet potatoes.