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Mississippi sweet potato growers face harvest challenges

Sweet potato yields and quality appear to be favorable despite rains that have harvest season running seven to 10 days behind schedule.

Calhoun County Extension Director Charles Fitts said growers in Mississippi's sweet potato heartland are looking for good weather to finish harvest by the first week in November.

“If rainy weather slows growers down too much, potatoes will be at risk of losing quality when the ground freezes,” Fitts said. “So whenever field conditions are good, growers are working as quickly as possible.”

Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said rains, including some from hurricanes Fay, Gustav and Ike, saturated fields and delayed harvest, but they have not caused as much water damage as some feared.

“We have some of the best potatoes we've seen in a while,” Graves said. The delays have given potatoes more time to size up, and they are filling up the bins nicely. 2008's potatoes could be equal to last year's excellent crop with most fields producing above-average yields.”

Graves said Louisiana growers were not so fortunate and are reporting losses of up to 50 percent of their 16,000-acre crop. Nationally, Mississippi is second in sweet potato acreage with 19,200 acres, behind North Carolina's 47,000 acres.

“The quality of Mississippi's sweet potatoes is well-known nationwide. One area that is increasing in popularity is sweet potato fries, and the larger potatoes are good for that use,” Graves said. “Sweet potatoes remain a versatile, nutritious food, especially in the South, where they are considered a ‘comfort food’ because of their aroma when cooking and their taste.”

A negative this year is the increase in production cost. Prices that growers get for their crop have remained flat while fuel, fertilizer and labor costs have increased significantly.

“We also are concerned about how the national economy is going to impact consumers going to restaurants,” Graves said.

Mississippi growers will celebrate the 2008 crop at the annual Sweet Potato Festival held in Vardaman on the first Saturday in November. Located in the heart of the state's sweet potato farms, the event attracts thousands to sample products and take part in events dedicated to sweet potatoes.

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