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

2009 Annual Report for OS09-047

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

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


Annual Report 2009 Overview

The first year of the sweetpotato project was a great success for the participants in Morgan and Elliot counties in Eastern Kentucky. Using funds from the Southern SARE On Farm Research Grant Program we were able to cost-share on the purchase of over 100,000 sweetpotato slips and related supplies resulting in nearly 10 acres of new sweetpotato production on 11 farms in Eastern Kentucky. Travel funds were also utilized for several growers and Extension personnel to visit large sweetpotato farms and equipment manufacturers in North Carolina. Extension specialists from the University of Kentucky presented a six hour sweetpotato short course in March and April of 2009 to interested participants. An East Kentucky Sweetpotato Growers Association has been formed with 27 members at the time of this report. On farm variety trials, slip production, harvest method and irrigation management trials were conducted. Growers were able to average close to 300-400 boxes per acre in yield with a set price of $20/box resulting in an estimated $60-70,000 net income for participants. There has been significant buy-in from the counties involved. The Morgan County Kentucky Extension Service purchased a sweetpotato harvester for the project at a cost of approximately $2,800. With the success of the first year of the project and heightened interest from new growers (nearly 200,000 slips will be ordered in 2010) additional county support in the form of the purchase of a sweetpotato packing line and curing facility (housed in West Liberty, KY) is being assessed. This project has helped participating growers develop a production system and marketing outlets for sweetpotatoes as an alternative crop to burley tobacco.

Objectives/Performance Targets

The following timeline/objectives were highlighted in the grant proposal:

Mar. 2009: Place orders for slips for late May delivery, and purchase seed potatoes for slip production

Accomplished, over 100,00 slips were ordered. Seed potatoes stored from preliminary research were utilized for the production of slips in 2009.

Apr. 2009: Meeting with growers and collaborators to determine plot location, layout, marketing the crop etc.

Accomplished. The project PI met with growers and collaborators as they formed an East Kentucky Sweetpotato Growers Association. In addition the PI Coolong along with other extension specialists from the University of Kentucky (Kenny Seebold [Plant Pathology], Ric Bessin [Entomology], Timothy Woods [Ag. Economics], John Wilhoit [Ag. Engineering], and Terry Jones [Horticulture]) held a sweetpotato school in March and April of 2009 to help new growers with production and marketing issues.

May, 2009: Soil preparation and transplant slips
Accomplished. Slips were purchased from Jones’ Farms in Bailey North Carolina. Several Growers and Extension Personnel from Eastern Kentucky visited with Mr. Jim Jones, owner of Jones’ Farms in May of 2009 to discuss sweetpotato production from tissue culture to harvest.

June-Aug. 2009: Manage sweetpotato plots, discuss marketing, introduce growers to produce auctions On-farm field-day and include discussions on sweetpotato research at UK Research Farm annual field day.

Accomplished. Growers were encouraged to explore as many marketing options as possible. Several Growers received wholesale purchase orders. An on farm “field walk” was held July 14th 2009 in Morgan County at Fannin’s Vegetable Farm where the sweetpotato project was highlighted.

Sept. 2009: Harvest sweetpotatoes at all locations, assemble small curing huts on farms.

Accomplished. Sweetpotatoes were harvested and graded, yield data collected. due to the rainy wet weather in Fall of 2009 harvest was delayed on several farms and sweetpotatoes were sold without extensive curing and storage. Most particpants chose to cure sweetpotatoes in tobacco barns.

Sept.-Oct. 2009: Market and sell sweetpotatoes, have a project display at the Sorghum Festival in Morgan County, KY

Accomplished. Growers sold out of nearly all sweetpotatoes by early fall prior to the annual Morgan County Sorghum Festival. Most sold their product directly to consumers at a cost of $20 per 40 lb box. Those that still had product at the festival were able to charge a premium price. The Morgan County Extension Office had a booth at the Sorghum Festival, one of the projects highlighted was the Sweetpotato program.

Nov. 2009: Meet with all collaborators discuss outcomes and improvements if necessary

Accomplished. Met with Sarah Fannin and spoke to several collaborators via phone to discuss outcomes. Most were very enthusiastic about the results of the project. Noted that more work needs to be done concerning improving curing and storage of sweetpotatoes. Growers were anxious to begin their own slip production, but were concerned that the extra work involved and the need to save-and thus not be able to sell- sweetpotatoes for slip production would not be cost effective at this time.

Jan. 2010: Present initial findings at annual KY Fruit and Vegetable Conference, Lexington, KY

Accomplished. PI Coolong presented an overview of sweetpotato production and the initial project finds during a 45 minute presentation at the KY Fruit and Vegetable Conference on January 4th 2010. Approximately 75 people attended this presentation.


Significant Accomplishments

We have had several major accomplishments. The formation of the E. KY Sweetpotato Growers Association has made the implementation of this project much easier. Here is a list as of Fall 2009 of the members.

Robert Bradley
Kieth (President) and Monica Hall
Arlene Lewis
Leon and Brenda Engle
Darris and Regina Hammons
Lenville Holbrook
Dr. William Holbrook
Kenny McGuire
Donald Kitchen
Heather Gamble
Fannin’s Vegetables
James Allred
Perry Lacy
Margaret Wlater
Donnie and Rita Wright
Gerald Shawler
Nellie Buchanin
Earl Ray Adkins
Larry Smith
Danny Townsend
Sarah Fannin (Advisor)
Crystal Sparks (Advisor)

Mary McCarty (Advisor)

As stated earlier a 6 hour sweetpotato short course was held. Attached is a flier for the course.

This year we conducted several on-farm variety trials in order to obtain average marketable yields to develop budgets for prospective growers. See Table 1 for yields.

In addition trials were conducted and data collected on the UK Horticulture Research Farm for irrigation management, slip production and variety performance. Slips are currently a significant expense for sweetpotato production.Growers are interested in slip production on a small scale using seed potatoes that they could produce themselves. To answer some questions that growers had leading up to the 2009 production season the PI laid out a slip production plot with three sizes of seed potatoes (Table 2). Irrigation management is a significant concern for many growers. Date and results of irrigation studies and variety trials were presented in the 2009 University of Kentucky Fruit and Vegetable Research Report (see attached).

This particular project has been a success due to the outreach efforts of those involved. Several newspaper articles and press releases have been written. One article regarding this project appeared in the Southeast Farm Press and is attached. In addition this project was featured on “Growing Kentucky” in November of 2009. The link to the video is provided here: http://agcommsvs.ca.uky.edu/growky/nov/sweetps-jeffshowweb.mov These short video clips are viewed throughout the state and often picked up by nationwide programming such as Rural Free Delivery.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes


This program has had a significant impact on its participants and the communities in which they live. Estimates of gross income of $60-$70,000 for the 2009 growing season are conservative. Several farmers that have participated are now planning on moving entirely from tobacco and diversifying their operations with sweetpotatoes. The acreage for sweetpotatoes under this project should double this season. We expect between 12 and 15 farms to participate in year two at some level. For the two year life of this project, income from the acreage grown should approach $150,000 which would be a 10x return from the initial investment from S. SARE. In addition there has been significant support from the participating communities for this project. By the end of this project we will have the production information necessary to develop a sweetpotato production guide, for growers, which will include realistic marketing and budget information. This project has given the PI and collaborators the ability to provide resources develop an alternative crop for some farmers in E. KY. Sweetpotatoes have been shown to be a cost effective low input crop that can provide significant supplemental income for farmers in E. KY.


Robert Bradley

6116 Hwy 437
West Liberty, KY 41472
Office Phone: 6065224520
Kieth Hall

East KY Sweetpotato Growers Association
West Liberty, KY 41472
Perry Lacy

2272 Griffey Branch Road
Channel City, KY 41408
Mary McCarty

[email protected]
Elliot County KY Ag. Extension Agent
University of Kentucky Cooperative Extension
P.O. Box 709
Sandy Hook, KY 41171
Office Phone: 6067386400