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Mid-South sweet potatoes survive drought

Given the 2006 climate conditions for growing sweet potatoes in Mississippi and Louisiana, most farmers of the vegetable could ultimately be pleasantly surprised at this season’s crop quality and final tally.

Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said that while the drought hampered what could have been a larger harvest, “quality is good.”

Mississippi farmers planted 16,500 acres of sweet potatoes this year, matching the size in recent years.

“We normally have our crop in the ground by July 15, but this year we finished around Aug. 10,” Graves said. “It takes 90 days to grow a sweet potato, so we need November to be warm with no big freezes or we’ll lose some acres.”

Bill Burdine, MSU sweet potato specialist, said the drought was advantageous to growers in that it kept disease and insect pressures in check, as well as slowed growth, causing them to have a sweeter taste.

“Producers were expecting a bigger loss than what they have seen, so they are pleased with what they are taking out of the fields,” Burdine said.

While lack of rain also caused problems for Louisiana sweet potato farmers, the select days of rain came at pivotal growing periods, said Tara Smith, a resident coordinator at the LSU AgCenter’s Sweet Potato Research Station in Chase, La.

Nearly 80 percent of that state’s sweet potatoes are grown in the northeastern area, where there was a reported 13-inch rain deficit. She said despite the drought, growers have been pleased with this year’s crop.

Myrl Sistrunk, county agent for Morehouse and West Carroll parishes, said crops are overall “better than expected. I think we’re going to average about 350 to 400 bushels per acre.”

In southern Louisiana, Gerald Roberts, county agent for Evangeline and St. Landry parishes, indicated that growers expect to average a yield of 375 bushels per acre this year, an improvement over an average of 350 bushels per acre recorded in previous drought-stricken seasons.

However, recent rains have caused another kind of problem for sweet potato farmers. “The water is just sitting there, even after rainfall stops,” Smith said. “It will take longer for the fields to dry out, which can create favorable conditions for roots to break down in the field. We hope the heavy rains have ceased, and growers will be able to harvest the remainder of the crop in a timely manner.”

As in Mississippi, drought conditions in Louisiana minimized disease and insect pressures.

While sweet potato farmers have had to negotiate problematic climate conditions, the market for the vegetable appears to be positive. Smith said the 2005 crop supply is practically gone, signaling that this holiday season’s demand for sweet potatoes will be absorbed by the newest harvest.

He also anticipates an increased demand for production in the future due to an increased year-round consumer demand.

He credits that trend to the public’s better awareness of the vegetable’s health diet benefits.

Graves noted that demand is also continuing to climb across the borders. “We’re selling a lot of sweet potatoes in Canada, and we’re shipping some to the United Kingdom and mainland Europe,” he said.

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