MISSISSIPPI SWEET potato growers are finding strong yields but weaker prices as they enter the homestretch for this year's harvest.

The market potential for sweet potatoes prompted Mississippi growers to increase their acreage from 14,500 last year to 16,500 this season despite the weather challenges and poor yields that accompanied the strong prices in recent years. Rains this year provided adequate moisture for most of the crop, unlike the recent drought seasons. Yields for the top-grade potatoes are running about 250 bushels per acre or better, which is slightly heavier than average.

“For the last two years, every state — including North Carolina, the leading producer — had trouble producing sweet potatoes,” said Paul Thompson, horticulture specialist with Mississippi State University's Extension Service at the Pontotoc Ridge-Flatwoods Branch Experiment Station. “But prices were good, so growers were willing to increase their acreage this year.”

The sweet potato specialist said the 2001 growing season never had extended dry spells, and August rains helped most vines fill out four or five good-size potatoes. Typically, the first potato is larger than the others, and harvest takes place when the majority are No. 1-size potatoes, or 2 to 3.5 inches in diameter.

Benny Graves, sweet potato inspector with the Mississippi Bureau of Plant Industry at MSU, said about 90 percent of Mississippi's sweet potatoes are the Beauregard variety. MSU researchers have worked to improve this variety's disease resistance, yield and quality/shape.

“Rains caused isolated cases of water damage, but generally they just helped the crop grow faster,” Graves said. “Anything we lost because of the rain, we probably made up for in the size of the rest of the potatoes.”