2010 is shaping up to be a sweet year for Mississippi sweet potato growers, a total change from the rains that destroyed 75 percent of last year’s crop at harvest.

Benny Graves, sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce’s Bureau of Plant Industry, summed the year up by saying the Vardaman sweet potatoes are back.

“We have extremely high quality potatoes coming out of the ground. They’ve been grown and harvested under ideal conditions,” Graves said. “Yields are a bit above average in a lot of cases, and I haven’t seen this quality in a number of years.”

The state has 19,200 acres of sweet potatoes this year, down 500 acres from last year, and 90 percent of these acres are within 40 miles of Vardaman. A few fields are in Humphreys and Tate counties. Mississippi sweet potatoes are prized nationally for their sweetness and color.

Despite the hot, dry weather across most of the state, weather conditions have been excellent for sweet potatoes. Timely, localized rains provided all the moisture the crop needed this year. The extreme heat of late July and August slowed the potatoes’ growth. Graves said though potatoes did not grow much during the heat, growth resumed with the first cool night.

“When you feel those first cool nights, you know the sweet potatoes are putting their food reserves into the roots,” Graves said.

As of mid-September, rains were holding off as the crop was being harvested. By Sept. 17, about 50 percent of the crop was out of the ground.

“We started harvesting about three weeks early, and we’re progressing at a rapid pace under ideal conditions,” Graves said. “The season allowed us to plant potatoes early, as we had warm weather and timely rains. Now producers are getting the potatoes out of the ground as soon as they can.”

Yields are averaging about 275 to 300 bushels per acre, up from the state’s average of 250 to 275 bushels an acre. In mid-September, sweet potatoes were bringing good prices at $19.50 per 40-pound carton.

“Prices should remain strong because movement has been good,” Graves said. “I think per capita consumption is up, and processing potatoes are moving well. We feel confident we will be able to move this crop well due to high quality and good taste.”

ConAgra is building a new french fry plant in Louisiana that will solely produce sweet potato fries. Graves said this plant will demand a large quantity of sweet potatoes, which will be very good for the industry.

Bill Burdine, Mississippi State University Extension Service sweet potato specialist, said Mississippi growers were able to capture some market premiums because of the early harvest.

“The 2009 crop was basically exhausted by the time harvest began, so buyers were actively pursuing new crop sweet potatoes,” Burdine said. “We have already moved about 10 percent of this year’s crop. Typically we hold new potatoes two to three months before we sell them.”

For years, Mississippi producers have grown Beauregard sweet potatoes. Graves said a new variety available is Evangeline.

“This is an orange-flesh variety like Beauregard that has great sugar content, especially early in the year when it’s first harvested,” Graves said. “We think it will be a good fit for our growers, and they will wind up growing both varieties.”

The 37th annual Sweet Potato Festival will be held Nov. 6 in Vardaman. A new poster has been designed to promote Vardaman sweet potatoes, and it will be displayed at the festival in Calhoun County.