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Rains harm below-ground crop yields
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- It was easy to see how above-ground crops suffered from back-to-back tropical storms, but those growing below ground took a less obvious beating.
Projections at mid-October were that the state lost at least 10 percent of its sweet potato crop from heavy rains in the middle of harvest. Mississippi has about 15,000 acres of sweet potatoes and typically harvests these from the second week of August until early November.
Isidore brought 8 to 12 inches of rain starting Sept. 26, then Lili followed a week later with about 3 more inches. These record rains affected sweet potato yields as those in low-lying areas drowned.
"Harvest for sweet potatoes is a very slow, labor-intensive process," said Bill Burdine, area agronomist in Chickasaw County with Mississippi State University's Extension Service. "It requires 10 employees to harvest two rows of sweet potatoes operating at a quarter mile an hour. Most crews can harvest eight to 10 acres a day."
Sweet potatoes are a semi-tropical crop and don't perform well in extremely wet conditions.
"With the ground being so wet, the roots waiting to be harvested are rotting in the field. Cellular breakdown occurs after the roots have sat in the water for 24 to 48 hours," Burdine said.
Benny Graves, sweet potato specialist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce's Bureau of Plant Industry, said the year provided excellent growing conditions, and farmers expected a slightly above-average harvest before the rains came. Growers are anxious for dry days to allow them to get back in the fields to harvest what's left.
"We're concerned that we won't have enough dry days between now and the first freeze," Graves said. "Ground temperatures below 60 degrees chills the potatoes and they rot."
Graves said about 45 percent of the state's sweet potatoes are harvested. It will take about 30 dry days to harvest what remains, which means growers can't afford any more rainy days.
"We're going to hustle and try real hard to get our crop out. We expect to work some in the mud," he said.
Alan Blaine, peanut specialist with MSU's Extension Service, said peanuts are in the same position as sweet potatoes. Only about half the state's approximately 15,000 acres of peanuts are harvested as rain have kept producers out of the fields.
"I'm real concerned with the bad shape we're going to leave some fields in for next year," Blaine said.