Danny Clark’s grandfather, A. H. Cook, was among the early-day farmers who came to the Vardaman, Miss., area from Tennessee in the early 1900s and started growing the sweet potatoes that have, almost a century later, become a major enterprise for the small town and surrounding area.
“My father, Oneal Clark, married one of Mr. Cook’s daughters and started growing sweet potatoes,” he says, as he watches the bustle of harvesting activity on one of his farms, “and I grew up in it.”
Even so, he says, he had no intention of carrying on the family farming lineage.
“When I went away to college at Delta State University, it was not with the thought that I’d return to the farm. A farmer was not what I wanted to be. I received my degree in biology in 1972 and was planning to enter a master’s program that fall. I asked my father if I could help him on the farm that summer to earn money to continue my schooling.
“And that was it for me — when fall came, I knew farming was what I wanted to do. I bought a tractor and started farming, and I’ve been at it for 40 years. I was a partner with Dad until his death; now, that land belongs to my brothers and me. I also have land of my own and rent other land.”
Almost all of the sweet potato operations in this area are owned by families that have been in the business for generations, Clark says. He now has three farms; two that he rents are about 10 miles from his packing shed.
As he enters his 60s, and is beginning to think of retirement somewhere down the line, he is encountering something of a repeat of his own experience with his son, Eric.
“I’ve got enough land that I could expand my potato acreage and make some improvements to my packing shed,” he says, “but Eric says he doesn’t think he wants to be a farmer, so I’m hesitant to commit to that kind of investment.”
Eric, who went to college to major in computer programming and is helping his father with this year’s crop, acknowledges that farming has been good to his father, “But I just don’t think it’s what I want to do.”
On this sunny autumn day though, issues of succession are on the back burner as four digging rigs move slowly through the field at less than 1 mph, scooping sweet potatoes onto conveyor belts on each side of a trailer, where an 8-person crew sorts them into bins according to grade.
“We have three different grades of sweet potatoes,” Danny says: “No. 1 field pack, which bring the best price; No. 2; and processing/canners. We’ll also get a few bins of jumbos.”
Periodically, the digging machines stop and 1,000 lb. bins of sweet potatoes are forklifted off and stacked in rows, to be loaded on flatbed trailer trucks and hauled a short distance away to Clark’s packing shed.
Harvest through October
“We started digging Sept. 16,” he says, “and if weather is good, we’ll probably continue through the end of October. Right now, the ground is very dry and we could use an inch of rain to mellow the soil for digging.
“But we sure don’t want a repeat of last fall, when we had too much rain and we were digging until nearly Thanksgiving, much of the time in mud. We had quite a bit of rotting after we got the potatoes into storage because we couldn’t get enough air circulation through the bins. We lost quite a few potatoes.
“My cousin, Norman Clark, is helping me today. We’re running my two digging rigs, another that Norman loaned to me, and a fourth that he brought because he wasn’t digging. With the four diggers, in a good day, we can harvest about 10 acres.
‘There are eight people on each trailer, and with truck drivers, forklift operators, etc., we have about 40 people in our crew today. When the packing shed is in operation, starting about Nov. 1, we’ll have 15-20 people working there two to three days each week.”
Sweet potato production is “very hands-on labor-intensive,” Clark says. “When we’re planting in the spring, each transplant has to be placed by hand, potatoes have to be sorted by hand when we’re harvesting, and then they have to be further sorted and packed by hand when we’re shipping.
“Most of my labor is local, mostly women, and a number of them have been with me for many years. A lot of growers in the area use H2A workers, who are mostly Hispanic and work seasonally.”
About a week before harvest, Clark says, “We’ll come in with a devining machine, which has coulters that clip off the vines so they won’t hang up in the digging machines. This also toughens the skin of the potatoes so they’re less subject to scratches and cuts when we’re digging.”
The digging machine runs a blade under the soil and loosens it so the potatoes can be scooped up onto conveyor belts that take them to the sorting platform, where workers do a preliminary sort according to size and grade.
“You’ll hear all kinds of yield estimates,” Clark says, “but we feel if we can get 400 to 450 bushels per acre, we’re doing OK. Of that, we like to get 50 percent to 60 percent No. 1s, about 20 percent No. 2s, and the rest processing grade.”
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From the fields, the loaded bins are trucked to his 20,000 square foot storage facility for curing. They’re held there until orders come in, at which time they’re washed and packed in cartons for shipping. “We usually crank up the packing shed operation about Nov. 1,” he says, “by which time we hope to be finished harvesting.
“I sell the bulk of my potatoes through brokers, at an agreed-upon price plus a $2 per carton packing fee. Some go to local brokers, others to out-of-state brokers. I expect we’ll have some North Carolina buyers coming here this fall because their crop was reduced considerably by the heavy rains that have plagued the Southeast.”
Fewer acres this year
According to figures compiled by Benny Graves, executive director of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, and Steve Meyers, northeast regional Extension specialist at Pontotoc, who serves as the state’s sweet potato specialist, the state’s weather-reduced crop this year was 18,450 acres, down about 18 percent from last year. Acreage in neighboring Louisiana was down by 25 percent to 7,500 acres, according to Mavis Finger, Louisiana State University AgCenter sweet potato specialist at Winnsboro, La.
“Since they’re sold through brokers, I don’t have a brand name for my potatoes,” Clark says. “We just pack them in cartons with the buyer’s brand.”
With cooling facilities, Clark says, cured potatoes can be held the year-round. “I only have one cooling room, so normally I’ll have all of mine moved out by the following June or July.”
Peak demand periods for sweet potatoes are Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas. “With reduced acres in Mississippi and Louisiana, and with the problems in North Carolina, the nation’s biggest producer, we may see some fairly strong prices,” he says.
Most of the Mississippi crop was planted late this year. “We didn’t set the first potato plant until June 6, and we finished July 5,” Clark says. We normally start mid-May, if the weather is OK. If it’s cold and winds are blowing, a lot of the plants will die. If the ground is warm and moist, they’ll start growing the minute they’re planted.
‘We save seed each year and bed them out in the spring for transplants. We’ll start bedding about March 1, depending on weather. We plant the Beauregard variety, which has been very good for us. This year, we also planted a couple of acres of Orleans, a new variety, to see how it would perform.”
Clark also grows 350-400 acres of soybeans, and each year rotates some of his acreage between the two crops. “I’ll vary sweet potato acres from year to year,” he says, “depending on the price outlook. I’ve had larger potato acreages in the past, but when soybeans started getting in the $13 to $14 range, that looked pretty attractive — and the labor requirement is far less.”
Insect problems for his sweet potatoes, he says, are mainly are cucumber beetles, wireworms, and grubs. “We incorporate Belay and Brigade at planting for insect control. We had varying amounts of insect damage in some fields this year, but in others we had none.
“Aside from insect pests, deer are a big problem — they’ll eat the vines in the spring and they’ll paw up potatoes in the fall. For the first time this spring, we also had a problem with wild geese eating the new plants. Between geese and deer, we lost quite a few potatoes. Some growers have had problems with wild hogs, but thankfully, so far, we have not.”
For weeds, he uses a preemerge application of Command and Dual Magnum.
He soil tests for fertility, but says his basic fertilizer mix is 45 lbs. of nitrogen, 100-125 lbs. of phosphate, and 200 lbs. of potash. “We try and keep a pH of 6.0 to 6.5, and add lime as the soil test indicates.”
In addition to the two digging rigs, Clark’s equipment lineup includes a devining machine, two flatbed trailer trucks, and two forklift loaders — plus “several thousand” of the large wooden bins for transporting and storing potatoes.
“I haven’t bought any new bins in a while,” he says. “We repair them, as needed — but I expect they’re now $60 to $65 each, so that’s quite an investment right there. Each will hold about 1,000 pounds, and depending on truck size, we’ll load 28 to 40 on a trailer to move them to storage.”
Vardaman is sweet potato capital
Mississippi is the second largest sweet potato-producing state in the U.S. behind North Carolina, and almost all the state’s acreage is centered around Vardaman, which has an official population of just over 1,300. That more than doubles with the 1,800 seasonal workers that help to plant, tend, harvest, pack, and ship the crop, valued at some $75 million annually.
In 2012, 104 commercial sweet potato growers planted 22,400 acres in Mississippi, most of that in Calhoun and surrounding Pontotoc, Grenada, Webster, Chickasaw, and Lafayette Counties.The typical 20-30 acre farm of the 1940s has grown to several hundred acres for most of the local farm family operations. Some have more than 1,000 acres.
The Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, which Clark serves as president, says Native Americans were already growing sweet potatoes when Columbus came to these shores in 1492. The crop has been grown in the southeastern United States from as early as 1648. (The sweet potato is technically not a potato, nor even a distant cousin. Potatoes are tubers; sweet potatoes are roots, and are actually a part of the morningglory family.)
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The main Vardaman thoroughfare, Mississippi Highway 8, bustles with sweet potato activity during all seasons, especially during the fall harvest. There are several sweet potato packing sheds located along the highway within the city limits, and many other family-run packing sheds are located on the outskirts of town, including two of the largest grower/shipper operations. A specialty bakery in Vardaman, Sweet Potato Sweets, ships its delicious products nationwide daily.
Each year, the week-long Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival kicks off the first Saturday in November, attracting 10,000 to 20,000 people, who participate in a variety of activities and enjoy sweet potato treats. (For information: vardamansweetpotatofestival.org)
The Mississippi Sweet Potato Council was founded in 1964 to promote Mississippi Sweet Potatoes and to educate growers on the latest practices to improve their product and their livelihood. It is one of the oldest agricultural organizations in the state of Mississippi.