THE FARMGROWING & HARVESTING
The Process of Growing & Harvesting
The sweet potato season never ends! That is what all sweet potato farmers say due to it taking 12-13 months to market a seasons harvest. This statement has truth to it, but we can simplify the process into stages.
Seed and Plant Growing (Bedding)
It all begins in the fall, prior to spring planting. The seed potatoes (also called seed but not really a seed) must be saved during the previous year’s harvest either by our farm or one of our certified seed growers. We use these “seeds” to generate the plants (sometimes called shoots or slips) for the next year’s crop planting. These seeds are stored in heated buildings, usually until early March. The seed potatoes are then removed from storage and placed by machine into 36” rows and covered with 2” of dirt and plastic. The plastic allows the seed potato to sprout. Once the sprouts have pressed through the dirt, the plastic is removed, allowing the sprouts to grow into slips. The slips are nurtured and trimmed for weeks allowing them grow to a consistent 13” height. At this time the plants are all hand cut just above ground level and placed in boxes to be transported to the planters. The plants are normally cut 36 hours in advance to planting. This ensures a vigorous plant. Normal plant populations range from 12,000-16,000 plants per acre, depending upon plant spacing and variety. Our average hand cutting is almost 40,000,000 plants per year!
Once the plants are cut and placed in boxes, they are loaded the next morning and placed near the planters. Planting usually begins at 12 noon. Our philosophy is to cut plants in the morning and then plant in the afternoon. It affords the plants 6 extra hours of stress relief from the hot Mississippi summer sun, thus generating a better yielding and better looking sweet potato. The planters are 8 row machines with 2 seats per row. This allows two people to share the responsibility of hand placing the plants into the revolving arms of the planters. This process usually begins round early to mid May and extends into mid to late June. Once planting is complete, the cultivation and crop growth monitoring takes place.
Sweet potato harvest usually begins mid to late August and extends until late October to early November. It usually takes a sweet potato 90 to 120 days to mature to marketable yield levels depending upon weather and variety. The harvest is still done mostly by hand. The vines of the sweet potatoes are mowed with a flail mower a few days in advance of harvest. This allows the tender skin to toughen. Following vine cutting, the diggers are moved in. These are small, 4 row chain machines pulled behind tractors that go underneath the ground and turn the sweet potatoes onto the top of the ground. The diggers are followed by H2A contract workers to hand grade and select the potatoes to go into storage as process or fresh market grades. This is a very labor intensive operation requiring large amounts of people and machinery. Once graded and placed in crates, the sweet potatoes are transported by truck to our long term storage facilities.