Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard was a military officer who became the first brigadier general of the Confederate States Army. In 1987 at Louisiana State University Dr. Larry Rolston, an entomologist and Civil War enthusiast, came up with a high-yielding, disease-resistant strain of sweet potato that saved the sweet potato industry in Louisiana. He named his variety after General Beauregard, of St. Bernard Parish. It remains one of the most popular varieties.
Sweet potatoes, a type of morning glory, come in over 400 varieties grown around the world. Louisiana’s soil and climate are ideal for growing sweet potatoes. But Louisiana sweet potato growers have some great competition in Mississippi. The Mississippi Sweet Potato Council will tell you.
No other sweet potato can compare to the ones we grow in Mississippi. We produce premium Number One sweet potatoes bursting with flavor and freshness. The rich, fertile soils of North Mississippi make our sweet potatoes appealing both inside and out.
Last year Mississippi planted just over 23,000 acres of sweet potatoes. About 500 of those acres produced organic sweet potatoes, mostly for baby food. Ricky and Jamie Earp are second-generation sweet potato farmers who run the operation their father started in 1968 near Houlka in Chickasaw County. About 60 percent of their crop are Beauregards.
As with almost all other growers in the country, labor is of prime concern to the Earp brothers (pronounced ARP, as in “sharp”). But unlike so many other growers you talk to, the Earps say they have a reliable local labor supply made up of people who have worked with them consistently over the years. Jamie Earp says that his wife and Ricky’s wife also help in the business.
Sweet potato farming is not highly mechanized. About his labor force Jamie says:
For planting, we’ll need 20 to 22 workers for about two and a half weeks, and at harvest 30 workers for about eight weeks. We have three harvester machines, each requiring eight workers. Then there are those who run the tractors and forklifts and other operations. Some of those same people help out in packing and shipping throughout the year.
Danny Clark of Vardaman, Mississippi, is in the same business. He is a third-generation sweet potato farmer. He says that sweet potato production is very hands-on labor-intensive, and that a lot of growers in the area use H2A workers, who are mostly Hispanic and work seasonally. But like the Earps, he says that most of his labor is local, mostly women who have been with his operation for many years.
At harvest time he operates digging rigs that move through the field at less than 1 mph, scooping sweet potatoes onto conveyor belts on each side of a trailer, where an eight-person crew sorts them into bins according to grade. It’s still going to be a while, though, before the sweet potatoes are ready for market.
The thing about sweet potatoes is that you don’t want them “green.” If you eat a green sweet potato you might be convinced that you don’t like sweet potatoes. Between 15 and 20 percent of the sweet potato harvest in the US is washed, packed, and shipped immediately after harvesting. These freshly dug sweet potatoes aren’t very sweet or moist.
Unlike a lot of other freshly harvested produce, sweet potatoes have to “set up” to be really enjoyable. They are cured by storing them at 85-90 degrees F and about 90 percent humidity, for 5 to 10 days. This is when they start developing their sugar-creating enzymes. This process also heals any bruises or skinning that occurred during harvest and allows the sweet potatoes to be washed and packed with less outer damage.
Afterwards the sweet potatoes are stored at 55-60 degrees F for six to eight weeks. The sugars continue to come to life. In due time the harvest is ready for packing and shipping. When you get them home and put them in the oven, the sugars really kick in.
You can’t tell by looking at a sweet potato whether or not it’s been cured. But a lot of growers assure you that they only ship cured sweet potatoes – especially those sold from September to the end of the year, when they sell the most. Edmondson Farms of Vardaman says through their highly advanced storage method they can provide consistent and exceptional quality sweet potatoes year-round.
Edmondson grows mostly Beauregard sweet potatoes in northern Mississippi and in Oak Grove, Louisiana. They’ve clearly got the best of both worlds.