November 9, 2022
Lorin Harvey has heard from several Mississippi sweet potato growers that the quality of this year’s crop is the best they have seen in 20 years.
“The high quality of the crop is what stands out to me this year,” said Harvey, sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service. “We have to see how things hold up in storage, but I have high hopes.”
Harvey said he expects the crop’s final total acreage to be around 28,500 acres this year. This amount is slightly less than what he had anticipated before dry, hot conditions took hold in June, leaving very little natural moisture for potatoes that were transplanted after May.
“Transplanting started as planned in May with good conditions, but we saw a 30-day period starting early June with temps between 90 and sometimes hotter than 100 degrees and no meaningful rainfall,” Harvey said. “These are almost the exact opposite conditions of the 2021 growing season.”
The dry spell greatly impacted sweet potato stands in fields that were transplanted during this time as soil surface temperatures reached 160 degrees.
“The early-transplanted crop looks great, but the same can’t be said for later transplanted material, which suffered from severe heat stress and lack of moisture,” Harvey said. “Overall, I think the crop is going to be above average due to the early transplanted crop yields.”
Unfortunately, growers in Louisiana experienced a very different harvest.
“I’ve been doing work with sweet potatoes since 1990, and I will put this one as the worst one I’ve seen,” said Myrl Sistrunk, LSU AgCenter sweet potato specialist.
Farmers are digging up fewer and smaller sweet potatoes than usual — and struggling to do so due to the drought — especially in northeastern Louisiana, where 75% of Louisiana’s roughly 7,000 acres of the crop is grown.
“They’re digging up big boulders and dry ground, and it’s hard for the crews to even find the potatoes in those types of conditions,” Sistrunk said.
Louisiana faced hot, dry conditions during critical crop development periods followed by flooding rains in August. More recently, yet another drought period has set in, with most of the state receiving no significant rainfall in weeks.
It is still too early to say what kind of an economic impact these trials have wrought on Louisiana’s agriculture industry, according to LSU AgCenter But with harvest of many crops finished, a clearer picture is emerging of just how difficult this year has been for the state’s farmers.
All of this comes after a growing season that was less than ideal. Heat stress early on prevented potatoes from “sizing up,” Sistrunk said, and August’s deluge damaged them.
“The sweet potatoes are living, breathing organisms, and when you put them in saturated conditions, many times unfortunately, they are going to break down,” said Tara Smith, coordinator of the AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station.
Producing sweet potatoes is labor intensive and expensive — sometimes costing more than $4,000 an acre — when compared to other crops.
“It’s certainly not a great situation that many of our producers are not going to realize the yields that they need to put them into and over that profit margin,” Smith said.
The three-year average for sweet potatoes in Mississippi is 440 bushels per acre, with 260 bushels per acre meeting enough standards in quality to be labeled U.S. No. 1. Harvey said the statewide average this year could be closer to 500 bushels per acre, with 275 bushels per acre graded No. 1.
Mississippi ranks second among U.S. states in sweet potato production; only North Carolina grows more. The industry there, however, is mostly confined to north Mississippi, with Calhoun and Chickasaw counties responsible for a majority of the crop.
“These two counties have a loamy soil type that is very conducive to growing quality sweet potatoes: good nutrient supply, root growth isn’t restricted, decent water holding capacity,” Harvey said. “It’s also where most of the infrastructure has been established.”
Sweet potato consumption
The average price this year for a 40-pound carton of No. 1 sweet potatoes is $24.50 -- 13 cents higher than last year’s average.
“The most recent estimate of annual average per capita availability is 6.7 pounds of sweet potatoes per person in 2020,” said MSU Extension agricultural economist Alba Collart. “U.S. consumption of sweet potatoes followed a declining trend between 1965 and 1999, and an overall increasing trend between 2000 and 2020. However, that trend was flatter between 2010 and 2020.”
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