This project began in 2008 and was funded starting in 2009 for two growing seasons. The goal of this project was to introduce a new crop for tobacco farmers in Eastern Kentucky, specifically Morgan and surrounding counties. For the 2009 and 2010 growing seasons several key aspects of sweetpotato production and marketing were evaluated on farms in Eastern Kentucky. Complementary trials were also conducted at University of Kentucky research farms. The data obtained from this project has allowed the partners involved to determine optimal production and marketing strategies for producing sweetpotatoes in Kentucky.
Burley tobacco has been the primary crop grown on farms in Eastern Kentucky. Most farms are small (<20 acres) and burly tobacco provided farmers with a profitable crop (>$1500/acre returns) that could be grown with minimal inputs. Traditionally family members assisted with all aspects of tobacco production from planting though harvest and stripping. However, changes in the marketing system for tobacco have left many farmers without contracts and in search of alternatives that can be profitable on a small acreage. Vegetables represent a viable alternative in terms of profitability per acre, but many of the vegetable crops offering the highest returns also require substantial inputs of both capital and labor. Furthermore, most vegetable crops are perishable and require intense marketing to ensure that the product is sold prior to deteriorating. Therefore vegetables, in general, may not be good alternatives for tobacco, especially when growers may work off the farm and not have sufficient capital or marketing expertise to ensure success.
Unlike tomatoes and other high-profit vegetables, sweetpotatoes are a crop that would be a good alternative for tobacco farmers. Sweetpotatoes require relatively low inputs (with the exception of the cost of slips) in terms of management and labor. They can be grown using bare-ground production techniques, and utilize already existing tobacco transplanting equipment. After planting the require some of the lowest inputs of all vegetable crops. Harvest can be done in a one-time manner and sweetpotatoes are a relatively long-storing crop when cured correctly offering the ability to market to several channels. Sweetpotatoes are also in-demand throughout Kentucky giving growers the ability to start small and sell their product through retail outlets.
Despite requiring less management than other vegetables there were still several important questions that remain regarding sweetpotato production in Kentucky. What varieties are best suited to growing conditions here, should they be irrigated, what harvest methods work the best, are there appropriate low-cost curing and storage solutions, and what marketing channels are profitable for growers.
Our objectives were varied and were modified during the project to meet unforeseen needs. Our objectives for this project were to work with several farmers in Morgan County Kentucky to determine optimum production and and marketing strategies. Specific objectives included:
Variety evaluation for Kentucky growers
Determine if irrigation is necessary and worthwhile for production
Determine appropriate spacing for planting
Determine the most suitable harvest method(s) for growers in Kentucky
Develop low-cost curing/storage options
Determine the most suitable method of marketing
Develop a budget for sweetpotato production in Kentucky