Innovations keep Carolina sweet potato grower on top

Bailey, N.C., sweet potato grower Jim Jones doesn’t consider himself to be a pioneer in the industry, but his innovations with equipment, seed technology and pest management have put him near the head of the pack among upper Southeast growers.

He cut his teeth growing yams in the truck middles of his grandfather’s tobacco crop. When he was 14 years old, Jones grew his first sweet potato crop. Today his micro-propagation cuttings are grown across the Southeast, his sweet potatoes sold up and down the east coast, and his name has become synonymous with sweet potatoes in North Carolina.

“Micropropagation is the name of the game in sweet potatoes,” Jones says. The propagation lab at North Carolina State University takes cuttings off the mother stock plants that are known to be free of insects and diseases. Jones buys cuttings, also called mother plants, in clay pots the last week of January to the first week of February.

He has a separate greenhouse for each variety he gets from the North Carolina State University Micropropagation Unit. A wood-frame greenhouse — 20'X80' — one-third center area is screened in for mother plants. Each greenhouse features electricity on thermostats and automatic timers for water and fertilizing.

Before entering each greenhouse, everyone goes though a double entry area for sterilization with a fogging system that completely covers the body to eliminate insects and diseases getting into the greenhouse.

“At the start of each growing season, we sterilize everything with a Clorox/Oxidate/fungicide/spore killer mixture to make sure everything is spic 'n' span and ready for new mother plants to be micropropagated.”

He transplants the mother plants in hanging baskets inside a screened cage in one of his greenhouses. As the plants grow vines, he cuts the 12-14-inch long vines into two-node cuttings, continuing until he fills each greenhouse with a specific variety. He currently grows five varieties of sweet potatoes, with one greenhouse generally designated for a specific variety.

By the time he gets his five greenhouses filled with cuttings, he begins planting in the field. Each house will generate a new crop of cuttings six or seven times a year, up until the third week of July.

“We take 100 daughter plants that all came from one mother plant, and by doing so you have the same plant with the same momma and daddy. The heredity should all be the same. The bottom line is a very uniform crop. It doesn’t always work out as the ideal because of weather and other conditions, but in general we get a very uniform crop,” Jones says.

Since he started in the mid 1990s with micropropagation, Jones has become one of the largest suppliers of sweet potato cuttings in the Southeast.

Jones also helped design an innovative planter/sprayer that is now being copied by growers across the state. Built by Strickland Brothers Equipment in Spring Hope, N.C., the big rig allows him to go into land that is bedded up, with a knockoff bar that takes the row down to planting depths. A middle buster opens the row back up to the root zone.

Capture is applied by two fan-tip nozzles that spray the open row, plus the dirt thrown out of the row. Capture insecticide is primarily to control wireworms, which is the leading pest for Southeastern sweet potato growers. Capture is a product that has replaced a number of foliar applications.

His big problem with weeds comes from pigweed. “All the other weeds combined don’t worry me as much as pigweed,” he says. After trying a number of herbicides, he contends his best control for pigweed comes from waiting until they get above the sweet potatoes and using a wick bar coated with glyphosate.

Though more attention has been given to pigweed resistance in the major row crops planted to Roundup Ready seeds, Jones says he has seen indications of glyphosate resistance in lambsquarters. It’s not just the cotton and soybean growers that will be affected by resistance problems, he says. In one field he sprayed lambquarters with glyphosate pre-planting and came back and wicked it with glyphosate and still didn’t kill the weeds, he laments.

Jones only grows sweet potatoes, but rotates his crop with neighboring farmers who grow cotton, soybeans, corn, tobacco and other traditional row crops. If farmers growing Roundup Ready cotton and soybeans get glyphosate resistance in the fields he will later plant to sweet potatoes, Jones says he will have an even bigger pigweed problem.

His innovative growing techniques in sweet potatoes got Jones and his wife Barbara interested in micro-propagated blackberries.

e-mail: [email protected]

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