Sweetpotatoes: A profitable crop for small farms in rural Eastern Kentucky

Project Overview

Project Type: On-Farm Research
Funds awarded in 2009: $14,791.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2011
Region: Southern
State: Kentucky
Principal Investigator:
Dr. Timothy Coolong
University of Kentucky
Sarah Fannin
University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: sweet potatoes


  • Crop Production: crop rotation, application rate management
  • Education and Training: extension, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: new enterprise development, budgets/cost and returns, marketing management
  • Production Systems: general crop production
  • Sustainable Communities: sustainability measures

    Proposal abstract:

    Summary of Project

    Historically, the most commonly grown crop on small farms in Eastern Kentucky has been burley tobacco. With high returns per acre burley tobacco was a profitable crop. However, in recent years the ability of small farms to remain competitive in the burley tobacco market market for burley tobacco has decreased. Therefore, many farmers in East Kentucky are looking to alternative crops that they can grow with minimal capital investment, but still generate a reasonable per acre profit. Sweetpotatoes are a relatively low input crop that are easy to manage and store.
    Many vegetable farmers in East Kentucky pursue direct retail sales at farmers markets and in some cases, produce auctions. There are three produce auctions readily accessible for farmers in Eastern Kentucky; Bath County, Mason City, and Lincoln County. Quality produce sold at these auctions will typically generate better than wholesale returns. However, due to the regional nature of these markets, vendors must concentrate on offering products that have a high demand in their area. There is a high demand for sweetpotatoes during the fall in East Kentucky. They offer a good return on a farmer’s investment.
    This project will develop production and marketing strategies using sweetpotatoes as a profitable crop for Eastern Kentucky farmers. This project will:

    1:Promote sweetpotatoes as an alternative crop that will help farmers become more economically sustainable, using strategies suited for small limited resource farms.

    2:Develop a sustainable market for sweetpotatoes.

    This project will concentrate on SARE On-Farm Research Grant Proposal focus areas 2 and 4, developing alternative crops and sustainable marketing projects.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    Approach and Methods

    To demonstrate that sweetpotatoes can be successful as an alternative to burley tobacco, we propose to conduct on-farm trials with growers in East Kentucky. Several growers have been identified and have expressed a willingness to collaborate. Three of these farmers grew very limited offerings of sweetpotatoes the summer of 2008. Three varieties, Beauregard, O’Henry, and Covington, were grown. Each variety had different attributes. The Beauregard plantings had very high yields (600 bu/acre), while Covington produced a more uniform, crop. O’Henry is a white fleshed variety that had a very high demand. While participants each had their personal favorites, all agreed that they would like to try more than one production strategy. None of the growers irrigated their crops and all feel that they would like to try either drip or overhead irrigation.
    The largest expense in growing sweetpotatoes is the production of slips. Some farmers have indicated that they would like to grow their own slips because they could not afford to purchase slips otherwise. Developing an on-farm production system for slips is crucial in promoting a sweetpotatoes as a profitable crop in Eastern Kentucky. This summer, 15,000 slips were purchased at a cost of nearly $1000 (including shipping) from certified slip producers in North Carolina. While 15,000 slips will plant about one acre, the initial investment is too high for many small farms in East Kentucky.
    Therefore we propose to grow three varieties of sweetpotatoes on six grower cooperator farms in East Kentucky, with a complimentary trial held at the University of Kentucky Horticulture Research Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. The on-farm trials will be conducted in collaboration with Sarah Fannin, Agriculture and Natural Resources Agent in Morgan County, Kentucky. Ms. Holiday has significant experience working with both vegetable and tobacco production in East Kentucky.
    Seed sweetpotatoes purchased from farms in North Carolina will be purchased in late March. Recommended slip production strategies will be modified to meet the conditions presented in East Kentucky. For example, most slips will have to be produced in a semi-controlled environment such as a high tunnel, to guard against the low temperatures that would cause injury and are prevalent in early spring in East Kentucky. In addition, slips of three sweetpotato cultivars Beauregard, O’Henry and Covington will be purchased and transplanted in late May to ensure success of the project. The size of the on-farm trials will range from 0.1 to 0.25 acre. Land will be prepared and plants grown following University of Kentucky guidelines (Bessin, et al., 2008). Some plots will receive overhead or drip irrigation to determine the value of irrigation for East Kentucky farmers. Timothy Coolong, extension specialist for vegetable production, will oversee plot selection, preparation, transplanting, harvest, and curing activities. Because few farmers have access to curing sheds with precise temperature and humidity controls, temporary curing structures will be constructed at for growers to use to ensure adequate curing. These structures will also serve as models for other growers to view during on-farm field days. Ms. Fannin will participate in weekly supervision of the trials and work closely with the farmers to ensure success. Yields and limited grading will be conducted for on-farm trials. Disease ratings and pest evaluations will be conducted by Dr. Coolong. Dr. Timothy Woods (extension specialist Agricultural Economics) will work with Ms. Fannin and farmers to help market the sweet potatoes. Cooperating growers will be provided with assistance in registering with MarketMaker and the Restaurant Rewards program. Product will also be sold through each of the three East Kentucky auctions to determine seasonal and regional price sensitivity.
    Companion trials to the on-farm programs will be conducted at the UK Horticulture Research Farm in Lexington, KY. This trial will be larger than the on-farm trials, and include irrigated an non-irrigated treatments as well as comparing two methods of non-chemical weed control - mechanical cultivation and black plastic mulch. A small non-replicated trial was conducted in 2008 using comparing bare ground production to black plastic mulch. Although sweetpotatoes were easier to harvest when grown on black plastic mulch, weed control was superior on bare ground that had been able to be cultivated shortly after planting. Sweetpotatoes grown at the UK Research Farm will be evaluated for disease susceptibility, physiological disorders, graded and stored to determine which varieties and production strategies offer the best yields, quality and storage potential for KY growers.
    Studies in all locations will be conducted for two years. If the results from irrigation and slip production trials are successful after year one, they will be employed when possible at collaborating farms in year two. The studies conducted on the UK research farm will also be repeated and modified if necessary.
    Input data will be kept for each of the farm trials and UK Research Farm in order to develop average enterprise budgets. These budgets will be used to estimate break-even prices and sensitivity to costs associated with key inputs. Alternative budgets will be developed for the alternate harvesting methods, depending on the results of the quality evaluations.
    Prices and traded volumes will be tracked at the produce auctions to measure regional sensitivity to supply and seasonality. The data will be published at the New Crops Opportunity Center website and presented at regional grower meetings in connection with the auctions.
    Kentucky recently implemented the MarketMaker program (www.marketmakerky.com), a directory of growers that can be accessed by buyers. Coordinating supply and demand will be enhanced by this tool, providing an opportunity for production to develop in Eastern Kentucky while connected to additional markets outside the region. Monthly hits will be monitored for the growers on the KY MarketMaker site. The growers will be responsible to identify any on-farm sales that may come about as a result of MarketMaker connections.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.