Sweet potatoes are a very challenging — and costly — crop to produce, growers say.
Some got into the business over the past couple of years hoping to capitalize on a “booming market” but were in for a rude awakening, said Charlotte Vick, partner in Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C.
“It is a very expensive crop to grow,” she said.
Many did not realize the amount of labor involved, all the way from seed production to planting to harvesting and packing, she said.
Producing sweet potatoes is a two-step process, said Matt Garber, partner in Garber Farms, Iota, La.
“First, you plant the potatoes to grow a plant, then you plant the plant to grow the sweet potatoes,” he said.
Sweet potatoes are “definitely challenging” because there is so much manual labor involved from plating to harvest, said Kim Kornegay-LeQuire, co-owner of Kornegay Family Produce, Princeton, N.C.
Cutting transplant slips is done by hand at Kornegay Family Produce, even though machinery is available to do it.
“We feel we get better quality and a better slip that you can work with when you cut them by hand,” she said.
The company harvests its sweet potatoes by hand as well.
There are machine diggers that might work well with the beauregard variety, Kornegay-LeQuire said, but the covington must be picked by hand to keep it from getting bruised.
“We tried machine diggers in the past, but we have found it’s a better quality potato when it’s hand harvested,” she said.
Vick Family Farms also hand harvests its sweet potatoes to prevent them from being bruised, Vick said.
The crop is “very temperamental” and also is susceptible to weather damage, especially in Hurricane Alley, where many sweet potatoes are grown, she said.
Sweet potatoes have a relatively long growing season — they’re planted in May and harvest generally starts in mid-August — which leaves them vulnerable to rain, and that can affect the ability of the potatoes to be stored — or worse.
“In a matter of a day you can lose an entire crop,” Vick said.
Garber Farms also weeds by hand during the summer rather than using herbicides.
“We do it to keep weed pressure in the future down,” Garber said.
With all the hand planting, picking and packing involved, “Labor is the big thing,” Garber said.
That’s why Garber Farms and others make good use of the government’s H-2A visa program to bring in foreign workers.
“There’s no way we could plant the acreage we plant,” he said, without the H-2A program.
But while the H-2A program does solve the labor supply issue, it adds to a grower’s costs, Kornegay-LeQuire said.
“We are very thankful for the H-2A program and the labor source that it provides,” she said.
She said the H-2A hourly rate has risen every year, along with the price of chemical inputs, seed and other costs.
“Profit margins certainly are affected when costs go up every year,” Kornegay said.