Delta farmer digging for the sweet (potato) smell of success

Published 12:00 am Monday, June 4, 2001

Charles Lowry, left, and William Richardson follow behind the sweet potato planting machine adding plants to the soil in spaces missed by the rotating wheel of the planter. (The Vicksburg Post/MELANIE DUNCAN)

[06/04/01] HOLLY BLUFF Clay Adcock used to be a typical Delta farmer. Every year since 1986 he planted about 3,000 acres of cotton the once-big cash crop of the region and a few hundred acres of wheat and corn on his family’s farm near Holly Bluff.

But depressed cotton prices forced him to look elsewhere for a profit, and he turned to what may be the Delta’s newest commodity sweet potatoes.

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“It’s a bright spot in farming in Mississippi,” said Benny Graves, sweet potato specialist with Mississippi Department of Agriculture and secretary/treasurer for the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council. “We’ve seen an upward trend in the last five years, going from 5,000 acres to 14,500 acres planted” in the state. Mississippi has also inched up in national sweet potato production, tying California for third place behind Louisiana and first-ranked North Carolina.

An increasing market and high profit margin are leading more Delta farmers to convert their fields. “I’m trying to find something to make money,” said Adcock, a well-spoken man with hair the color of the fleshy vegetable. “I’ve been losing money every year” with cotton, he said. Prices are now about 42 cents a pound, “the same price as in 1940. And it’s getting tougher and tougher every year,” he said.

So this planting season, Adcock set aside 75 acres, “a lot for me,” he said. He also purchased a used planter for $9,000, a new digger for $25,000 and rounded up a group of workers to get the more labor-intensive commodity into production. Joined by neighbor Will Phillips, who is borrowing Adcock’s machines to plant 50 acres of his own, they are the only two who’ve taken the risk with the crop in Sharkey and Yazoo counties.

Sweet potatoes are certainly not new to non-Delta farmers in Mississippi. But they have traditionally been the domain of southern Mississippi, centered at Vardaman, the self-proclaimed Sweet Potato Capital of the World where a Sweet Potato Queen is named each year.

Some say it’s the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station’s recent success with the Beauregard variety that has paved the way north for sweet potatoes. About 1,500 acres have been planted in the Delta including 700 acres in Humphreys County and on about 20 farms in Mound Bayou and one in Rosedale. “It’s an upward-trending commodity, but minor compared to other row crops,” Graves said.

“Five years ago, we sold to surrounding states. Now we sell to all 50 states,” he said, comparing Mississippi’s sweet potato success with that of catfish, which is centered in the lower Delta at Belzoni. “There are few Mississippi products that go to all 50 states with Mississippi marked on them.”

The sweet tuber is considered ideal for the region. “It’s a drought-tolerant crop even more so than cotton,” said Adcock, who has an irrigation backup should conditions turn too dry. The soil is ideal typical well-drained, No. 1 cotton delta soil, Adcock calls it. And most important, the Delta is free from the sweet potato weevil, a creature that feeds only on sweet potatoes but hasn’t been able to flourish north of Interstate 20 in central Mississippi farmlands. “The Beauregard is well-suited for all climates and soils, but the best area to grow it is north Mississippi and north Louisiana,” said Graves. “We can grow them better than North Carolina,” he said.

Yet there is one drawback: labor. Even though unemployment in Sharkey and Yazoo counties runs as high as 20 percent, finding reliable workers who will toil for minimum wage has been a problem for Delta farmers. Adcock said he had to search for enough people to man his planter. “I’ve got nieces and nephews and people off the street corner,” he said, including his 14-year-old son, Claiborne, who’s working to pay for summer camp.

The group spends eight-hour days on and around a huge piece of equipment that looks like a 16-seat carriage pulled by a tractor. In a scene that looks as if it were plucked from the turn of the century, workers sit side-by-side on a row of seats mounted over a series of red wagon wheels, their hands constantly in motion placing young sweet potato cuttings into metal pockets that spin between each set of wheels.

The work is slow and tedious. It takes an hour for the planter to make one pass down the 3,000-foot-long field traveling at just more than 1/2 mile an hour. Two people plant one row; the machine covers eight rows with each pass. In an eight- hour day, Adcock hopes to plant 400,000 cuttings, known as slips, into just 12 acres of land.

“Every plant has to be touched by someone’s hand,” he said, and laughed when the process is compared to cotton a crop that is mechanized from planting to harvesting to ginning.

Millie Fortner, 23 years old and pregnant, attests to the tedium. She spends the day sitting on an outside seat of the planter under the mesh canopy that shades her from the afternoon sun. “The only reason I’m doing this is to get a swing set for my girl,” said the stay-at-home mother of a 5-year-old, as she continuously placed slips into the rotating pockets. “It’s not hard, it’s just real slow.”

An additional four workers must follow the planter 4 1/2 if you count Adcock’s 7-year-old son, Parker.

“You can’t have any skips,” Adcock said, as he walked slowly behind the machine, searching for missed spots along the rows. “Cotton will make up for a skip,” he said, explaining how the plant will grow to fill any missed spots.

“If you skip a sweet potato, you will make a jumbo beside it on both sides so you don’t lose one potato, you lose three.”

While Adcock needs seven days to get his entire crop in the ground, harvesting is even slower. His 14-seat digger can manage only three acres a day so he staggers his planting over three weeks to make harvesting easier come September.

But the intense work should be worth it. Adcock estimates that sweet potatoes cost $1,500 per acre to produce, but they will bring in $2,400 per acre if prices remain around $6 per bushel. That $67,500 profit should cover his start-up expenses in the first year, not counting fixed costs.

“That’s if you grow good potatoes and don’t make any mistakes,” he said.

Mistakes include miscalculating dirt mounds a pitfall he made in the first few acres he planted, when he had to adapt his cotton equipment to new row dimensions.

“This is all new to me,” said Adcock, who has traveled around the region quizzing farmers and experts about all aspects of the crop. Throughout his researching, he found that the market looked good.

He’s had no choice other than to diversify, given today’s glut in the cotton market one that U.S. farmers have said they don’t see a way to overcome.

But don’t expect all cotton farmers to convert in the short term.

“Sweet potatoes take care of themselves,” Adcock was told by a long-time farmer in Oak Grove, La. “It takes a lot of work and a lot of payroll,” he said. That’s why he’s taking it slowly.

“Adcock and Phillips are doing what any farm should do start small, develop a market first, then grow into the business,” Graves said.

Michael LaComb, a chemical salesman from Alexandria, La., who has assisted Adcock with planting, is confident of Adcock’s success. “He’s an innovative, aggressive young farmer. He’ll find a way to make it work.”

One way or another, Adcock said, he’ll keep the farm going. “If I go down, I’ll go down swinging.”