Smothered in brown sugar and marshmallows or sliced and fried to a savory crisp, sweet potatoes are a favorite on America’s dinner tables. In fact, the number of people eating sweet potatoes has doubled since Jamie Earp started growing the nutrient-packed vegetable.
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“One of the biggest changes for us is consumption is up,” says Earp, a sweet potato farmer in Chickasaw County and president of both the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council and U.S. Sweet Potato Council. “When my brother and I started farming in the late 1990s, consumption was about three to four pounds per person, and now it is eight pounds per person in the United States.”
Sweet potato acreage in Mississippi has increased 35% in the last decade, fueled by consumer demand and the state’s ideal soils for the crop. In 2018, approximately 89 farms planted about 29,000 acres of sweet potatoes in Mississippi, making the state the No. 3 grower of this root vegetable in the United States. Most of Mississippi’s sweet potatoes grow in a five-county area around Vardaman, known as the “Sweet Potato Capital of the World.”
“I believe our soils are some of the best to raise sweet potatoes,” says Earp, who farms with his brother in an operation his great-grandfather started in 1967. “I get calls from people looking to buy Mississippi sweet potatoes because of their taste.”
Fall has arrived, and so has the harvest season – the time of year when it’s literally “all hands on deck” in Mississippi sweet potato fields.
The labor-intensive sweet potato harvest spans the months of September and October, with each potato being hand-gathered. Earp estimates the five-county area in Northeastern Mississippi hires about 3,000 workers, primarily through the H-2A program, to ride or walk through fields to gather literally tons of sweet potatoes. In 2018 alone, Mississippi farmers and their employees harvested 540 million pounds of sweet potatoes valued at $118 million, according to the Mississippi State University Agriculture, Forestry and Natural Resources Fact Book.
The Earps gather their 250 acres with a mechanical harvester, which holds up to 10 laborers who pick up sweet potatoes and place them in a bin. Larger farms employ a bucket crew that walks through the field picking up mechanically surfaced sweet potatoes to fill their buckets.
The process of planting sweet potatoes begins in April for Mississippi’s farmers. Farmers grow vegetative shoots from roots produced in the previous year. They cut those shoots to make “slips” that laborers transplant into the fields.
The plants grow throughout the summer – vegetation above ground and the sweet potatoes below. Farmers watch for diseases, weeds and insects that can attack the crop and treat as needed.
After harvest, farmers cure and store potatoes until buyers call for orders. In 2018, the Earp family grew just over 5 million pounds of sweet potatoes they pack and sell in 40-pound boxes to warehouses and brokers.
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Adam Wright’s father started growing sweet potatoes in high school, and in 1983 created the partnership today known as N&W Farms in Vardaman. There, Wright leads the packaging line, where the farm packages upward of 40% of its annual harvest off 1,200 acres, as well as the sweet potato harvest from nearby farms.
“I manage the specialty stuff – three-pound bags, single wraps, and microwave and steamer bags,” says Wright, a member of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers & Ranchers State Committee, Calhoun County Farm Bureau Board and Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.
The sweet potato packs some serious health benefits, like providing beta carotene, high fiber and low calories, to name a few. While these benefits drive sales, it’s the demand for cooking convenience that has changed packaging options.
Sweet potatoes still sell in bulk, but often in smaller quantities, like two-pound and three-pound bags sorted by machine to length and ounce, Wright says. Machines at N&W Farms also individually wrap eight- to 12-ounce sweet potatoes for store shelves. In the last three years, the farm added steamer bags, which are 1.5-pound packages of double-washed sweet potatoes in convenient microwavable bags.
“You can put them in the microwave, and it cooks all five sweet potatoes in just minutes,” Wright says. “Everybody is looking for an easier way to cook when they get off work.”
Wright and his staff of 20 employees on the packaging side of the farm business also hand-select sweet potatoes for their shrink-wrapped trays.
The farm’s specialty packaged products sell under several brand names, such as Hillbilly and Lady Hillbilly Sweet Potatoes or N&W Farm Sweet Potatoes. Most sell to major retailers or distributors.
At dinnertime, Wright prefers his sweet potato simple: baked with butter. He has, however, tested his mettle in the sweet potato pie-eating contest at the Sweet Potato Festival, which starts the first Saturday of November in Vardaman.
Sweet potato pie is Earp’s favorite way to eat the vegetable any time of year.
“Sweet potatoes are not just a holiday food,” Earp says. “And we’re excited about people purchasing and eating it every day.” |