Southeast sweet potato crop slow start 2013

A TRACTOR covers a row of sweet potato seedstock with plastic as a worker covers the edges with dirt.

Southeast sweet potato crop off to ‘cold’ start

• Barring further weather delays, sprouts were expected to be available in eastern North Carolina in May. • Planting will begin as soon as possible and last until June 25. Harvest will begin 90 to 100 days after transplanting.

The cool damp weather in much of the Southeast during March got some crops off to a slow start.

That was particularly the case with sweet potatoes.

Many growers choose to grow their own sprouts. That takes 30 days or so. Once transplanted, the crop needs 90 or 100 frost-free days in the field, so growers want to find a window of good weather in March to get the sprout-producing job done.

Joel Boseman of Battleboro, N.C., said he was able to find such a window. He “bedded” his sweet potato seed stock on March 14, a little earlier than normal for him, and he was very glad he was able to do it on that date.

“There was some cool damp weather right after that," said Boseman near the end of March.

“Only about 50 percent of the sweet potatoes in this area have been bedded, and now the growers are getting nervous about getting the rest in.”

The bedding process includes putting whole potatoes right on top of the ground and pushing them into the dirt, Boseman explained.

“Then we put a little dirt on top, spray a herbicide on the row and wrap them in plastic,” he said.

But this is not the only way to produce sprouts. You can also use plastic greenhouses, and they are recommended if you need sprouts early.

Sprouts can be produced in three to five weeks in greenhouses if heat is provided and pre-sprouted seed stock is used.

But the most practical method for the majority of North Carolina growers is the field bed covered with clear plastic.

Barring further weather delays, sprouts were expected to be available in eastern North Carolina in May.

Planting will begin as soon as possible and last until June 25. Harvest will begin 90 to 100 days after transplanting.

Planted area in North Carolina is expected to be down a bit as growers were a little reluctant late in the winter to solidify their plans this season.

There were two reasons, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

“No farm bill has been passed, meaning farmers don’t know what the playing field is going to be like,” she said.

Very labor intensive

“And they really need legislation to assure that a stable labor supply will be available. Sweet potato production is very labor intensive.”

The new group of sweet potato growers in eastern Kentucky also found itself  being held up by weather as March ended.

Through March 26, when snow was still on the ground, no ground had been broken for sweet potatoes.

“We have had a cool wet winter, but I wouldn’t say we are late yet,” said Tim Coolong, Kentucky Extension vegetable specialist.

“We have a little more leeway though because we don’t generally grow our own slips. Most of our growers purchase slips from North Carolina or Tennessee so the timing is not quite as critical as in those states.”

The eastern Kentucky production area is around West Liberty, Ky., mostly in Morgan County. Very few commercial sweet potatoes had been grown at all there until a program sponsored by Southern Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education helped growers start their first crop in 2009.

“At least half the growers have been tobacco growers,” said Coolong. “That makes for a good fit, because a lot of the equipment they used for tobacco can be used for sweet potatoes as well, particularly the transplanters. They don’t have to buy a lot of new equipment.”

The farmers sell their sweet potatoes at roadside stands and farmers markets for the most part. “The larger ones have picked up grocery contracts,” said Coolong.

Some have used newspaper advertisements to generate good on-farm sales, he added.

Where the sweet potatoes are planted in river bottom soils that are light, the soil is well suited to the crop, said Coolong. “Some of the soils we plant sweet potatoes in are too heavy, but they usually work out for what the farmers are doing.”

On heavier soils, the growers plant on beds, Coolong said. But where they have no access to water, they plant flat to conserve water.

Most farmers who started out in this program have stayed in, but only a couple have really expanded. Most are growing one acre or less.

The program has attracted attention, said Coolong. A few farmers in the Hopkinsville area of western Kentucky have expressed interest in sweet potatoes. They would like to produce a significant wholesale acreage.

“I think sweet potatoes are a realistic crop for many parts of Kentucky,” said Coolong. “Our biggest problem — hands down — is creating a market. We can grow a good potato but we have to be able to sell it.”

With less than a hundred acres, Kentucky has a long way to go to being one of the leading sweet potato states.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Prospective Planting report, which was issued March 28, the leading sweet potato-producing states in 2013 and the percent change expected in plantings are: North Carolina — 58,000 acres, down eight percent from 2012; Mississippi — 24,000 acres, down eight percent; California — 18,000 acres, same as last year; Louisiana — 9,000 acres, down 10 percent; Florida — 6,400 acres, same as last year; Arkansas — 4,000 acres, same as last year; Alabama — 2,500 acres, down seven percent; and all U.S. — 122,300 acres, down six percent.

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