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Growers Rushed For Sweet Potato Harvest
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Weather delayed planting the 1997 sweetpotato crop by three-weeks, making growers scramble now to get it out of the ground as quickly as possible.
Mississippi has 8,200 acres planted in sweetpotatoes this year, an increase of 400 acres more than last year. Harvest began Sept. 15 and is about 35 percent complete. The state usually sells 1.5 million 40-pound boxes of sweetpotatoes.
Benny Graves, sweetpotato specialist at Mississippi State University, said this year's harvest is expected to be about average, but 25 percent lower than 1996's record year.
"We have good potatoes, but fewer are being harvest this year," Graves said. "We have more orders for Mississippi sweetpotatoes than we have sweetpotatoes to sell."
Because of their color and flavor, Mississippi's sweetpotatoes are prized in the marketplace. Mississippi growers also have built a reputation for good customer service.
"We've built up the Mississippi name in the marketplace, we just wish we would have more potatoes to sell this year," Graves said.
Prices per box range on the low side of $10.50 to $13, but are expected to increase $1 after Thanksgiving.
Charles Fitts, Chickasaw County extension agent, said about half the harvest is complete on his county's 2,500 to 3,000 acres of sweetpotatoes. Recent rains softened the ground and kept the sweetpotatoes from being scraped as they were harvested.
"The rain was exactly what we needed," Fitts said. "We were a couple of weeks late starting harvest, but we should be finished by mid- November."
The crop is slightly behind schedule because a very wet June postponed planting for three weeks in Calhoun, Chickasaw and Pontotoc counties, the state's main production areas.
"Terrible rain in June cost us a lot of money," Graves said. "It made the difference between the state having a bumper crop and an average crop."
Fitts said the late planting did not hurt the sweetpotatoes' quality in his county.
"You harvest potatoes by size, and instead of having a lot of jumbos, we're seeing a more desirable-sized sweetpotato," he said.
Once planted, the crop got ideal rains in July, but faced a six- week drought in late summer. This slowed growth and maturity, but did not damage quality.
Growers are now out in the fields in earnest trying to harvest the crop before the cold, wet weather of fall sets in, usually by the first week of November.
"Normally the harvest is finished by Oct. 31, but this year we're three weeks behind that, which makes harvesting risky," Graves said. "Our growers know they need a late freeze or a warm November to get the harvest in."