The Lucrative Sweet Potato Takes Root
Tobacco farmers in eastern Kentucky have seen markets shrink in recent years - but they've also found a profitable transition in the form of sweet potatoes. With relatively low input and capital costs and a short learning curve, they are able to earn gross returns of up to $7,000 per acre, mostly through local sales.
"Sweet potatoes are a pretty good alternative, at least for our growers, because a lot of the equipment they used for tobacco can be used for sweet potatoes, particularly the transplanters. So they don't have to buy a lot of new equipment," says University of Kentucky Extension Vegetable Specialist Tim Coolong. "Economically, it's been very good for them."
Coolong received a 2009 grant from USDA's Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE) program to research and demonstrate sweet potato production on several farms. To date, he has helped about 15 farmers-most of them former tobacco producers-grow the highly nutritious vegetable.
Meanwhile, in Mississippi, the country's third largest producer of sweet potatoes, SARE-funded research is helping the state's growers adopt sustainable practices and cash in on organic sales by showing them how they can better manage their soil with cover crops and conservation tillage.
Only one grower in Mississippi currently produces organic sweet potatoes, yet organic can fetch a premium at fresh markets and through sales to processors, says Mississippi State University researcher Ramon Arancibia.
Working with three farmers around Vardaman, Miss., and others in Arkansas, Arancibia's trials found that an organically grown crop suffered less pest damage than a conventionally grown one. He also focused on demonstrating the soil-building qualities of cover crops. "Sweet potatoes are root vegetables, so they need a very healthy soil. The soil structure needs to be very good so the potatoes can grow in a nice shape," Arancibia says, referring to cover crops' ability to improve organic matter and loosen hard-packed soils.
To help get the word out, Arancibia is sharing his findings with the 104-member Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, which represents nearly all the state's growers. One farmer who collaborated with Arancibia is planning to plant a brassica cover crop on 50 acres next season, to see if it will combat nematodes.
Back in Kentucky, Coolong's on-farm trials showed that aside from using pesticides to control wireworm damage, sweet potatoes require few inputs-and some growers are, in fact, pesticide free. Sweet potatoes have low nitrogen needs and in eastern Kentucky do not require irrigation except in the case of extreme drought.
"There are a lot of nuances with sweet potato production that this grant really allowed us to look at," says Coolong, whose work translated into a detailed handbook and the formation of a regional growers' association.