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Sweetpotato acres down, growers remain positive
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Sweetpotato growers have high hopes for this year's crop despite planting 1,500 fewer acres than in 2002.
Bad weather conditions damaged last fall's supply of the crop, which in turn increased the demand -- and price -- of sweetpotatoes this season.
"Supplies nationwide are low, so prices are pretty high at around $16.50 per 40-pound carton now," said Benny Graves, sweetpotato specialist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce's Bureau of Plant Industry. "Now what we need to do is harvest a crop and make a profit."
Graves emphasized that sweetpotato prices do change from week to week.
So far, about 20 percent of the crop has been harvested. Growers will continue to harvest what remains of the 13,200 planted acres through the first week in November, provided the process stays on schedule.
"Basically, we need a dry September with about 1 to 2 inches in rain toward the end of the month," Graves said.
Mississippi's reputation for producing some of the best sweetpotatoes has spread across the nation, and marketing efforts have increased sales outside the state. The well-known Beauregard variety continues to give Mississippi good results.
"Our sweetpotatoes are some of the best around, going to every state east of the Rockies. There aren't many products you can say that about," Graves said. "People in the Midwest and Northeast have learned about Mississippi sweetpotatoes. We just have to make sure we have the supply to keep up with that demand."
Growers in Chickasaw and surrounding counties are pleased with the crop so far, but some are harvesting earlier than usual to avoid last year's problems with excess rain.
"Most growers began harvesting in the last week of August," said Bill Burdine, Mississippi State University Extension Service area agronomist in Chickasaw County. "Some are harvesting young potatoes because there's a price premium for early potatoes. So they've sacrificed some yields to get that premium price."
He said prices are up 30 percent now from last year's average, due to the demand for fresh-market potatoes.
"We've received enough rainfall to have a good crop this year. It hasn't been too wet during the growing season," Burdine said. "Insect and disease damage has been light with some white fringe or sugarcane beetle damage, but nothing out of the ordinary."