BELZONI, Miss. -- Early indications are for a robust harvest of Mississippi's sweet potato crop with both yield and quality prospects above average.
Jimmy Turner, who produces sweet potatoes near Belzoni, says many Mid-South growers are desperately in need of a profitable year. "Last year was a complete disaster because of the tropical storms that came through at harvest-time, and the year before I lost half of my crop to water damage."
Luckily, this year is proving to be quite different. Turner says his yields are averaging 500 bushels per acre, and he's receiving about $15 per bushel for his sweet potatoes. "That's a good bit more than the $10 per bushel we've gotten in the past few years for the high-quality number one potatoes," he says.
"Growing conditions have been almost perfect this year, and we've had ideal harvest conditions since mid-August. The two or three scattered rain showers we've received in the last few weeks should further aid in potato quality," says Benny Graves, a sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry in Starkville, Miss.
According to Graves, extreme dry conditions can cause the potatoes to be scarred during the harvest process. Slightly moist soil conditions improve potato quality because it makes it easier to mechanically dig up potatoes with less injury to the potatoes.
As of mid-September, about 30 percent of Mississippi's sweet potato acreage had been harvested. Graves says early harvest results seem to be around 300 bushels per acre overall, with very little insect damage noticeable. The state's average yield is 250 50-pound bushels, or field packs, per acre.
"We're seeing an excellent turnout of number one-quality potatoes so far this year. Overall, the quality and overall prospects for the 2003 crop appear to be better than average," he says.
During harvest, sweet potatoes are sorted by quality characteristics and field graded as either number ones, twos or processing grade. The highest-quality potatoes are either immediately washed and sent to market or stored for later marketing. Lower grade, or cull, potatoes are used for processed sweet potato products.
Mississippi sweet potato acreage is down somewhat in 2003 due to poor harvest conditions last fall. The disaster caused a financial burden on many farms, resulting in 1,500 fewer acres being planted this year.
Graves says producers are in a good position this year with good yields of high quality potatoes. Nationwide supplies are tight, resulting in better prices for growers. "Prices are holding up well during September," he says.
The third-largest producer of sweet potatoes in the nation, Mississippi harvests about 15,000 acres of the golden-hued vegetable each year.
Planting of the 2003 crop began in late April or early May, with the ideal planting window reaching all the way to the fourth of July. "Staggering planting dates allows producers to stagger harvest dates. You can't plant them all at one time because you can't harvest them all at one time," says Graves.
While recent rains have slowed harvest down somewhat, Graves says producers remain slightly ahead of schedule, as compared to an average year.
What adversely affects sweet potatoes, he says, is the first chilling cold rain after a frost, or when soil temperatures fall below 60 degrees. That generally doesn't happen in North Mississippi until the first week of November.
The bulk of Mississippi's sweet potato crop is grown within a 30-mile radius of Vardaman, Miss., which bills itself as the "Sweet Potato Capital of the World." The state's remaining acreage is spread out across the state with acreage in Belzoni, Mound Bayou, Holly Bluff and Jefferson County.