Sweet Potato Belt healthy for Carolina vegetable growers

Growth and diversification is a high risk enterprise in agriculture, but one that is paying off for North Carolina growers in an area known as the Sweet Potato Belt.

Over 200,000 acres of vegetables are grown annually in North Carolina, including more than 36,000 acres of sweet potatoes. A large percentage of sweet potatoes are grown in the Sweet Potato Belt, which is a 10-county area, located along I-95 in the state.

While sweet potatoes are the primary crop grown in the Belt, the area has been a hot-spot for myriad vegetable production, from sprite melons to peppers. The area is also typical of large, diversified farms that have taken in many smaller farms, including vegetable farms.

J.B. Rose and Sons in Nashville, N.C., is a one such diversified operation that includes over 500 acres of sweet potatoes, 500 acres of tobacco, 150 acres of cucumbers and over 4,000 acres of cotton and soybeans.

Allen Rose, who along with his brother David own and operate the farm, says it's not as diversified as it seems. “We have two groups of crops, he explains, cotton and soybeans require similar equipment, except for harvesting. Sweet potatoes, tobacco and cucumbers also use similar equipment and have similar labor demands, he explains.

J.B. Rose started farming in Nash County after returning home from World War II. In 1972, David joined his father's farming operation, followed by Allen in 1977. Today, Allen's son, Charles, a recent graduate of North Carolina State University, is now working full-time with his father and uncle on the large operation.

The elder Rose did a lot of custom work for smaller acreage tenant farmers. As these farmers went out of business, the Rose family rented or purchased most of the land they currently farm. Most of this land would have gone out of farming, but becoming part of a large farming operation kept both the land and farmers in agriculture in many cases.

Diversification into vegetable production has been a common practice among growers in North Carolina's Sweet Potato Belt. Wilson County Extension Agent Billy Little says many growers have either gone into sweet potatoes and cucumbers or melons and cabbage, but rarely do these ever crossover, Little says.

In many cases this expansion has created a new niche market for farmers. The larger row crop farmers often offer subcontracts for cabbage, sprite melons, watermelons and peppers. Instead of managing it themselves, they hire these smaller farmers to grow for them. It eliminates much of the risk and provides high level management skills for these smaller growers.

Little says the Sweet Potato Belt in North Carolina is filled with large acreage vegetable and row crop farming operations. We see smaller farmers go out of business and those who stay in get bigger and bigger, Little says.

Among those getting bigger is the Rose farming operation, and it has changed significantly over the years. At one time they were primarily corn farmers, but they grow no corn today. In 1983, a consultant suggested they try a few acres of sweet potatoes. Since that time, they have grown into one of the larger growers in North Carolina's Sweet Potato Belt.

“We are in a four-year rotation with most crops. On some land, with irrigation, we can go to a three-year rotation. On most of our land, we go tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton, then soybeans. Soybeans help bring nematode levels down low enough to come back the following year with tobacco, without having to fumigate the soil,” Rose says.

Though spread out over three counties, Rose says crops are set up so that distance has not been a primary problem. “Our farm is set up in a triangle shape pattern that may be 45 miles from one end to the other, but we plan a year ahead what will go where, and we have enough land to rotate crops. Planning is a critical element on such a diverse farming operation.

“Will Connell is our crop consultant, and he has been a big help in making our farm plan from year to year. He scouts all our cotton and soybeans and PRC (pesticide residue clean) tobacco, because we can't use a lot of pesticides on the PRC land,” Rose says.

Rose says sweet potatoes have become one of their staple crops, but cautioned it can be a very tough business. “Sweet potatoes have been a good crop for us since 1983, but it is an up and down business. We've sold sweet potatoes for as much as $18 per 50-pound box to $3 a box. We don't seem to get the highs in prices that we used to get.

In the past 10 years there has been a dramatic change in the sweet potato business, going from traditional certified, registered seedstock to the current system of micropropagation. Despite the large acreage in sweet potatoes in North Carolina, only 7-8 growers produce all the seedstock, using micropropagation.

Insects have been a major problem for North Carolina sweet potato growers the past few years. The system of spraying foliar insecticides every 10 days, from the end of June up until September, has generated a lot of expense. Too often, the result has not been so good.

Many sweet potato growers also grow cucumbers, and these growers typically spray every five days with foliar insecticides. This level of spraying and the costs associated with it demanded some change in insect management.

Three years ago, Rose was among a small group of North Carolina sweet potato growers who began participating in a multi-state sweet potato IPM project that has yielded big benefits.

“We were spraying too much and not seeing consistent results. Working with North Carolina State University entomologists as part of a sweet potato IPM program, has helped us lower insecticide spraying on our sweet potatoes. This year (2006) has been a good year for us with insect damage, either we are doing a better job or pressure was light,” Rose says.

Growers participating in the Sweet Potato IPM project agree to leave 16 rows of sweet potatoes that are not treated with any insecticide or nematicide. The IPM Team put in tests in more than 60 grower fields in North Carolina to compare treated and untreated sweet potatoes.

“What it allows us to do is to compare insect damage on treated and untreated roots. Because we cooperate with 16 different growers in North Carolina, we get a good range of insecticide use and patterns. By comparing different treatments, different rates and different application methods, we can tell what is and what isn't working,” says Mark Abney, coordinator of the Southern Sweet Potato IPM Project.

“Some guys are putting on bare minimum insecticides, while others are applying foliar sprays at weekly intervals. Looking at it across the whole spectrum, you can see treated versus untreated and the different chemicals and determine the level of insect damage based on the management practices used,” Abney explains.

“We grow B-14 and B-24 Beauregard and Covington, which is a North Carolina State University variety. The Covingtons, he says produce some of the best yields and highest quality potatoes, but results seem to be spotty. In 2006, he adds, his best sweet potatoes were Beauregard 14s and 24s.

Since we switched to primarily Beauregard sweet potatoes five or six years ago, insects have been the biggest problem for us. Wireworms in particular create puncture wounds in the potatoes, causing rotting and opening the root up to diseases and other problems that show up at packing time.

“Working with Mark and others in the sweet potato IPM program has helped us keep insect damage better under control. He points out this is particularly important because of the high yield and uniform growth habits of Beauregard varieties, which unfortunately tend to be more susceptible to insect damage.

For growers thinking about expanding traditional row crop operations to include vegetable crops, Rose says it will be difficult, but not impossible.

Labor for one thing is difficult to come by and getting harder every year. To start out with no labor camps, building these facilities alone would be a tremendous cost to get into the sweet potato or cucumber business and doesn't even include actual production of a crop, Rose says.

Fuel costs and labor costs for our tobacco and vegetable crops has increased every year for the past few years. At best we can cut fuel costs by 10 percent. We get fuel surcharges on the services we buy, but we can't charge an extra cost for our crops.

No-tilling and strip-tilling soybeans has helped the North Carolina growers cope with escalating fuel costs. “We used to disk land twice, and bed, and cultivate, making three trips over the soil. Going to no-till probably cut our fuel costs in half,” Rose says.

In many cases sweet potato growers must be certified as using Good Agricultural Practices. Otherwise, many retailers simply won't buy their product. More and more North Carolina sweet potatoes are being shipped to foreign markets, but only by EuroGAP certified growers, packers and shippers.

The requirements for GAP certification includes such things as rodent control, testing of irrigation water, and sanitation training for migrant workers. EuroGAP certification is even more extensive.

Growing, and more importantly marketing vegetable crops, is significantly different from row crop farming. Combining labor and production costs, stringent guidelines for marketing, and specialized knowledge of micropropagation will make it difficult for farmers to break into the type diversification that is common place in the Sweet Potato Belt in North Carolina.

On the other hand, because of the heightened economic and management requirements, this type of diversification will open the door for many niche farmers and marketing entrepreneurs.

Palmer pigweed in Georgia can range from another $45 an acre to as high as $92 an acre in fields where farmers have had to resort to hand weeding to remove the problem weed.

“Glyphosate-resistant Palmer pigweed can be much more problematic than horseweed due to its more competitive nature,” says Steckel. “On average, GR Palmer could cost cotton producers an extra $40 per acre or more to manage.

“Because of that, we think glyphosate-resistant pigweed is a much bigger threat to cotton production, and every year we can delay its arrival in the Mid-South can mean big savings to our producers.”

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