Stephen Bailey believes what makes sweet potato farming unique is the people. It is also a good crop for rotational purposes.
Bailey, a sweet potato farmer near Bellefontaine, Mississippi, has been farming the passed-down family business since 2006. The 2020 sweet potato crop has been above average, Bailey said.
"The weather has been nice compared to some years, and we were able to get planted quickly and on time, which helps the potatoes grow to their full potential before we needed to harvest them," said Bailey, a third-generation sweet potato farmer. "I can't complain about the weather we've had during harvest. The yields have been up and down, depending on the area, but we have dug some of the best potatoes harvested in several years. Overall, the crop is above average.
"It's a relatively small operation. My grandfather started the farm in 1946, and then his sons, my uncles, took over as he retired, so I grew up around the farm, mostly during the holidays. I always looked at it as a part of holiday festivities, so I was the one who took an interest in continuing the farm after my uncles decided to retire from farming."
With the added packing operation, it is a year-round process.
"You start in March with the plant production, putting potatoes in the ground to sprout," he said. "That is like the first crop in a way because you cut the sprouts off the plant and plant them in May or late spring to early summer. After the fall harvest, the winter is spent washing them and packing them up to be shipped off."
Sweet potato labor in 2020
Approximately 29,000 acres in Mississippi went to sweet potatoes in 2020, and sweet potatoes are produced in eight main counties. The largest producing counties are Calhoun, Chickasaw, Webster, Grenada, Pontotoc, and Yalobusha; limited acres are found in Humphries and Tate counties.
Sweet potatoes, a labor-intensive crop, requires a lot of workers during the planting and harvest season.
"We never experienced any outbreaks of COVID-19, but it did create more uncertainty, especially when pulling together a harvesting crew," Bailey said. "Going into harvest, in the back of my mind, I was concerned that if the numbers were to spike or a crew member were to get sick, the crop could potentially be lost because we wouldn't have a way to harvest it. We're approaching the end of harvest, and we've made it through without much of a hiccup."
Bailey's harvesting crew is made up of around 70 locals.
"Every year, we need about 70 people to have a full crew, and usually, we have room for a couple more people due to some not being able to work the whole season," he said. "This year with COVID-19, we were concerned that could affect people wanting to join the crew, but for the most part, only a few people decided not to work this year out of caution, but we were able to get a full crew."
Traditionally, sweet potatoes are harvested by flipping the potatoes up and on the ground, and workers comb through the field, picking them up off the ground. Then the potatoes are put into different baskets, based on size.
Today, a machine brings the potatoes up out of the ground on a conveyor, and the workers ride on each side of the conveyor, putting the potatoes into boxes as they are brought up.
"It saves a lot of back labor compared to the original way of harvesting the potatoes, as well as it helps to speed up the process," Bailey said.
"One thing I do think about when I think of sweet potatoes compared to a lot of other crops is the people. For about five to six months out of the year, I'm spending time with a lot of local people, and it's neat getting to know everyone."
Some workers are regulars and use the harvest season as an extra source of income while others might be new to the operation.
"I have a core group who stay on year-round to wash and pack potatoes," he said. "That same crew helps me plant and harvest as well. During planting and harvesting when I need additional workers, I've done a little bit of everything. Sometimes, I'll put an advertisement out, but most of the time I just tell my crew to bring friends, family, and neighbors who would like to work, and so far, that works.
"My two sons help during planting season. They have even brought classmates to help complete the planting. We usually get enough people to plant, but the harvest is a lot longer and a tedious process. You have to be more careful harvesting, so it has added challenges."
Sweet potato as a rotation
Bailey rents most of his land from a local farmer who grows cotton, corn, and soybeans.
"Crop rotations using grass and broadleaf crops is almost always beneficial to yields," said Bill Burdine, Mississippi State University Extension agronomy specialist and National Association of County Agricultural Agents (NACAA) president. "Research shows a 5% to 10% yield increase when rotating between the two plant types versus rotating broadleaf to another broadleaf crop. Several causes are involved. This rotation system allows producers to alternate weed control chemicals to lessen the effect of resistance and of one particular weed becoming more troublesome than normal. Using different herbicide chemistries is a major benefit of any rotation system."
Grass and broadleaf crops use different levels of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, and the different rooting systems allow different plants to scavenge for left-over nutrients.
"Rotating crop types has a huge effect on reducing numerous insect and disease issues since most pests are host-specific," Burdine said.
"Sweet potatoes are low users of nitrogen, so little nitrogen is applied following corn. Sweet potatoes are large users of potassium and fields may receive up to 300 pounds of potassium per acre. Plus, leftover potassium is still available to the following crop whether it is corn, cotton, or soybean."