Leading edge cooperation spurs Southern staple

Sweet potatoes taste good, provide good nutrition and are easy to grow. They are commonly referred to as yams, however, yams are actually a separate vegetable from the sweet potatoes grown in the United States, and are grown primarily in tropical climates.

Sweet potatoes are still considered a staple food in the South, and are served in a variety of ways throughout the world. They were once a major crop for small produce growers in Arkansas for many years before row crops became the primary crops. Arkansas Delta Yams, a state-of-the-art storage facility just outside Helena, Ark., is the centerpiece of a program designed to spur a comeback of sweet potatoes to east Arkansas. Arkansas Delta Yams opened to accept the 2007 fall crop. The completely climate-controlled storage conditions increase the window of sale for sweet potatoes from about 28 days to 12 months.

“The concept is to create a new generation business model,” said Cindy Neal, coordinator of the Central Arkansas Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D). RC&D is a program of the USDA. The project represents a leading edge idea in the partnering of nonprofit organizations with profit organizations in the vegetable production business. The nonprofit RC&D obtained various grant funds, including initial start-up capital, from Winrock International, a global nonprofit organization that addresses sustainable resource management. RC&D has partnered with the Arkansas Delta Produce Marketing Association, LLC, a for-profit organization of growers in Phillips and Lee counties in the east Arkansas Delta area. The LLC leases storage space from the facility and individual growers deliver their crops to the facility.

Photo courtesy of Arlanda Jacobs,
University of Arkansas Extension 2501 Program.
Floyd Morrow displays sweet potatoes.

“Our goal is to start a sweet potato industry here in this area,” said Bruce Leggitt, Arkansas Delta Yams facility manager and former RC&D coordinator. “We want to help keep small growers on the farm and bring more jobs to the area.”

According to USDA figures, sweet potatoes represented a $298 million crop in 2006. North Carolina led the nation in production, producing about 40 percent of the nation’s 90,000 acres. California, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama join North Carolina as the five top sweet potato producing states. Arkansas farmers grew about 2,850 acres of sweet potatoes according to state statistics.

The rich Delta soil that forms this region, brought in by centuries of flowing Mississippi River waters, gives growers the options of growing a wide variety of crops. While sweet potatoes were once grown extensively in the Arkansas Delta, row crops have been the crops of choice as they have produced higher profits in recent years. With economic changes, diversification is garnering more interest, and sweet potatoes offer growers an opportunity to diversify on small acreages.

The 37,000-square-foot facility has a current capacity of about 110,000 bushels. “We’re in the process of expanding and doubling our capacity,” Leggitt said. The facility is expected to expand annually to a full capacity of 500,000 bushels.

The upcoming expansion represents one of the major challenges for the RC&D. “With the expansion, we’re going to need at least six new growers,” Leggitt said. He also cited the challenge of educating financial institutions on the sweet potato business. “The growers need money to grow these crops. It costs about $1,500 an acre to produce sweet potatoes,” he said. He noted that because banks and other financial institutions are unfamiliar with the sweet potato business, financing isn’t easily obtained. “They don’t understand sweet potato production or sweet potato marketing,” he said.

Storage facility extends market window

Challenges in growing sweet potatoes vary with the cultivar, but are relatively few, according to Dr. Craig Andersen, professor and horticulture extension specialist at the University of Arkansas, who focuses on furthering the fresh market vegetable industry in Arkansas. “The most common cultivar grown is Beauregard,” Andersen said. It’s relatively fast and productive.” The Arkansas crop has traditionally been about 75 percent fresh market and 25 percent processing.

Andersen cited the short window in which to sell sweet potatoes as a limiting factor. With no accessible commercial storage available, growers have been limited to markets where they can sell within that short window. Growers add sweet potatoes to row crop production

Photo courtesy of Arlanda Jacobs,
University of Arkansas Extension 2501 Program.
A sweet potato transplanter, owned by Arkansas Delta Produce Marketing Association, LLC, is shared by grower-

Grower-members of the LLC harvest their sweet potatoes and deliver them to Arkansas Delta Yams. The sweet potatoes are placed into 20-bushel bins in a curing holding area before being moved into storage. Sweet potatoes require several weeks of curing during which time air must continually circulate over the potatoes. They remain in storage until they are used to fill orders.

When needed to fill orders, the sweet potatoes are washed, graded and sorted into No. 1, commercial, baker, jumbo and canner grades. They are then placed into 40-pound boxes with 20 boxes per pallet, and 50 pallets per truckload. Canner sweet potatoes are shipped loose by the truckload. Currently, the primary customer for canner sweet potatoes is Bright Harvest Foods, Clarksville, Ark. Potential customers for 2008 include Gerber Baby Foods. Marketing responsibilities are shared by all involved. “We all do some of the marketing,” Leggitt said.

“Not all storage facilities have to be refrigerated,” Leggitt said. “Just fans can be used to store sweet potatoes up until about Easter before the heat is too much for them. Our hope is that some growers will get into sweet potato production and have their own storage facilities and bring their crop to us for packing.”

Photos courtesy of Arkansas Delta Yams, unless otherwise noted.
Sweet potato bins are moved to curing area.
Photo courtesy of Arlanda Jacobs,
University of Arkansas Extension 2501 Program.
Sweet potatoes move through the sorting line for packing.
Photo courtesy of Arlanda Jacobs,
University of Arkansas Extension 2501 Program.
Sweet potatoes are harvested by a bucket crew following flip-plow.

Currently, four growers participate in the LLC and store their sweet potatoes at Arkansas Delta Yams. They are Ben Anthony, Ernest Cox, Floyd Morrow and Harvey Williams. The LLC owns two eight-row New Holland transplanters and a flip-plow that is used to harvest the sweet potatoes. The equipment is shared among the grower-members. Granular fertilizer is used prior to planting and a few weeks after transplanting. Furrow irrigation is used, with wells providing the irrigation source.

Harvey Williams is a former row crop grower who began growing sweet potatoes in the 1980s, mostly selling his sweet potatoes during the short period following harvest. “I had a small amount of storage, and I rented some space, but it was nothing like the storage facility we now have,” Williams said. He now grows about 200 acres of vegetables that includes 114 acres of sweet potatoes with the remainder in greens and squash, with greens double-cropped.

Floyd Morrow farms 2,200 acres in Phillips County, and grows primarily row crops. “About five years ago, the University of Arkansas had a meeting and asked us about growing sweet potatoes,” Morrow said.

“We started planting sweet potatoes, but didn’t have what we needed to be successful,” Morrow said. “Vegetables aren’t like row crops. You don’t just plant them and harvest and sell. You have to store them, and we didn’t have proper storage for them.” He grew about 120 acres of sweet potatoes in 2007, and hopes to expand his sweet potato acreage 2008.

Leggitt said, “We contracted with Dr. Bill Mulkey, the sweet potato guru, to provide assistance to the growers.” Mulkey, a retired professor, has worked directly with growers to provide expertise needed to grow sweet potatoes successfully.

Williams noted, “Dr. Mulkey provided so much assistance, and especially to those new to growing sweet potatoes. One way he helped me increase my production starting three years ago was to have me apply fertilizer both before and after planting. I had been applying it all before planting, but it really helped production when I started using it after transplanting, too. Our relationship with the RC&D is a model that shows this arrangement can be duplicated here or in other places.”

Nancy Riggs is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to Growing. She resides in Mt. Zion, Ill.