Encouraging Expanded Organic Sweet Potato Production in North Carolina

2012 Annual Report for FS12-260

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2012: $15,000.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2014
Region: Southern
State: North Carolina
Principal Investigator:
John Kimber
NC SweetPotato Commission Foundation

Encouraging Expanded Organic Sweet Potato Production in North Carolina


Organic Sweet Potato Production in North Carolina

Commercial organic sweet potato production in North Carolina is limited to a few large growers and several small growers. The large operations produce organic sweet potato for the European market, a few domestic retailers, and for the baby food industry, while smaller producers usually grow more for direct marketing to consumers. Small compared to conventional production, North Carolina organic sweet potato production still amounts to around 1,000 acres, according to USDA statistics. As demand for local produce continues to grow there exists market potential for expanded organic sweet potato production, yet little research has been conducted on organic growing practices that could potentially assist North Carolina organic sweet potato producers.

Objectives/Performance Targets

    1. 1. Develop and deploy a survey of organic growers to gather information on current in-state organic growing methods
      2. Apply the survey data to facilitate designing and conducting comparative organic sweet potato growing tests. The tests will couple prior NCSU research with current on-farm practices to create several scenarios. Replicated tests will occur at several on-farm locations and at the NCSU organic research station.
      3. Gather and compile the resultant data (cultural practices, yield, quality, and costs).
      4. Present the findings to NC sweet potato growers through field days and direct outreach.


Project Accomplishments

An organic growing practices survey was developed and refined for use in surveying organic sweet potato growers in North Carolina. A list of organic growers was developed from industry and online resources. Surveys were then conducted in person or on line until a representative number of surveys were obtained. Approximately 10 farmers were surveyed representing some 90% of the commerical organic sweet potato production in North Carolina. Issues representing the greatest concern included the following: • Cover crops • Weed control • Natural pest control • Rotational crops • Value of organic vs. traditionally grown sweet potatoes Organic/natural weed control represented one of the more serious issues faced by organic producers. Farmers have experimented with various methods of weed control, from hand weeding to the use of cover crops to mowing, and it appears that no one method is universally successful. Accordingly, Dr. Katie Jennings, Extension Weed Control Specialist at NCSU, planted Austrian pea oats cover crop test plots during fall, 2012 at NCSU research farms and on the farms of a couple of organic sweet potato farmers. The cover crops should be developed enough to study during the 2013 growing season as to effectiveness in non-herbicide based weed control. Additionally, Dr. Jennings anticipates planting Covington sweet potato in May, 2013, and planned herbicide tests will include wicking treatment of lemongrass oil, an OMRI approved organic herbicide. She will also be testing paraquat wicking treatments both on the experimental farm and with an organic producer. Dr. Jonathan Schultheis, NCSU Hort. Dept. Extension Leader, working with a graduate student, is attempting to formulate a simple production study that would be of interest to organic producers and would focus on basic cultural practices implemented by producers in order to successfully grow organic sweet potatoes.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

A Collaborative Approach to Industry Solutions...

The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission Foundation, the NCSU Hort Dept. and a number of independent producers are collaborating on this project, recognizing that expertise and assistance is needed from all segments to accomplish the objectives of this project. Trials are underway with additional research planned for this year based upon initial results. A greater understanding of organic sweet potato production practices had already been realized by the University and Foundation. Industry has shown a willingness to participate and replicate research being conducted at NCSU research farms. The results of this project should result in practical recommendations for organic sweet potato production in North Carolina.