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

2010 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


2010 Yearly report of activities and accomplishments

In 2010 we worked to improve on deficiencies in the sweetpotato production/marketing system as well as complete objectives detailed in the grant proposal. This year saw a change in the attitude of a number of growers participating in the project. During the first year of this project we recruited many growers that were interested in trying sweetpotato production. After 2009, several growers decided this was truly a worthwhile crop and their focus turned from simply growing a crop to increasing efficiency and production to target a wholesale or expanded market. Furthermore, the sweetpotato growers association decided that they did not need a full cost share on slips in 2010 as they did in 2009. Although the costs of slips were still cost shared for some growers in 2010, the majority purchased their own.

Perhaps most noteworthy was the decision to try to procure a property in Morgan County near the Mountain Parkway as a place to start a sweetpotato cooperative for curing and storage. Discussions are currently underway to make this a reality. A curing and storage facility could greatly transform sweetpotato production in Eastern Kentucky.

Central and Eastern Kentucky experienced a severe drought in 2010 during August and September. A number of growers moved to a raised bed production system after 2009 to better take advantage of the harvester that was purchased by Morgan County. However, the raised beds dried out quickly, which led to a decline in yields in 2010. Most yields in 2010 were only 50-70% of what they were in 2009. Nonetheless growers generally did well.

In addition to growers in Eastern Kentucky, there was significant interest from farmers in other regions of the state based on seeing results from the 2009 growing season at several county level meetings. Mark Retrol, a tobacco farmer from Christian county (Western Kentucky), is growing 1-2 acres as a trial this year and is hoping to scale up to 20 acres+ in 2012.

Objectives/Performance Targets

Objectives for 2010

Objectives proposed in grant for 2010:

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

Feb.-Mar. 2010: Present findings and recommendations at grower meetings across KY, determine if we need to order slips based on success of slip production from year 1

Apr. 2010: Order slips (if necessary) and meet to discuss layout, plans,

May-Aug. 2010: Transplant and manage crop, second on-farm field day

Sept.-Oct. 2010: Market sweet potatoes, have display at Sorghum Festival-include first year economic and variety data.
Accomplished (presented at Robinson Center for Appalachian Resource Sustainability field day instead of Sorghum Festival)

Nov. 2010: Create extension publication for sweetpotato production. Include data from project including: harvesting methods, curing structures, rotation strategies, variety performance and economic analysis
In progress

Jan.-Mar. 2010: Present final data from project at KY Fruit and Vegetable Conference and S. Region Amer. Soc. Hort. Sci. Conference. Present finding at regional extension meetings.
Accomplished (presented at National ASHS meeting in Palm Desert, CA instead of regional meeting)

Additional objectives not proposed in original grant but deemed necessary by growers after year one of the project:

Sweetpotato slip production on a large and small scales

Improved pesticide application at planting for better control of wireworms in the soil.
In progress

Extended variety evaluation

Low cost curing method evaluation

Irrigation management on sweetpotatoes


Accomplishments in 2010

Accomplishments related to objectives outlined in grant proposal:

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.

PI Coolong presented overviews of sweetpotato production at several county level meetings across Kentucky in the winter of 2010 including meetings in Daviess, Lincoln, and Christian Counties with approximately 150 attendees. Furthermore, the sweetpotato short course was again held at the Morgan County extension office on April 8th and 15th 2010. Approximately 25 attended the sweetpotato short course. The short course included speakers in Agricultural Economics (Dr. Tim Woods), Entomology (Dr. Ric Bessin), Plant Pathology (Dr. Kenny Seebold), Agricultural Engineering (Dr. John Wilhoit), and Horticulture (Coolong).

Approximately 150,000 slips were procured in 2010 for approximately 20 growers with plots ranging from 1/5 to 2 acres. Cost sharing on slips was limited to a small number of new growers in 2010.

The sweetpotato project and variety trial was highlighted in a field day held at the Horticulture Research Farm in July 2010. The sweetpotato project was featured at the Robinson Center For Appalachian Resource Sustainability in Fall Field day in Quicksand, Kentucky. Approximately 200 attendees visited booths for production and nutrition information at the field day.

The results of the project were presented at the National American Society of Horticulture Conference in Palm Desert, CA by PI Coolong in August 2010.

Accomplishments not included in original grant proposal:

A sweetpotato slip production system was demonstrated to be effective for growers of large and small scale. The purchase of slips remains the single largest cost for producers. Therefore it was necessary to test the effectiveness of two types of slip production systems (large and small scale) to develop guidelines for Kentucky growers so that they can produce their own slips. This demonstration was conducted in May/June 2010 and was very successful. Results will appear in a sweetpotato production guide for Kentucky.

A two-row sweetpotato hiller was purchased by the Morgan County Extension office and modified by PI Coolong to contain a spray tank and nozzles for a directed application of a soil applied insecticide prior to planting. This should reduce damage from wireworms (resulting in 50% + losses for some growers) while reducing ineffective pesticide applications for conventional growers.

Eleven varieties of sweetpotatoes were evaluated for different markets in Kentucky. Evaluations took place at Fannin’s Vegetable Farm in West Liberty, KY and the UK Horticulture Research Farm in Lexington, KY. Important recommendations will be made based on the information obtained in this trial. Results will appear in a sweetpotato production guide for Kentucky.

Curing of sweetpotatoes remains a challenging aspect of production for many farmers in Kentucky. Few have access to their own facilities, and on a small scale such facilities would be uneconomical. Therefore a low cost, low tech, scale appropriate curing process was evaluated based on curing of root vegetables in developing countries. This was tested on grower Kieth Hall’s farm as well as our Horticulture Research Farm. Results were very promising, showing that the curing method used reduced temperature fluctuations while maintaining humidity levels. Potatoes are still be evaluated in storage, however, this method was demonstrated to be effective based on preliminary storage data.

Several production questions including slip production, pesticide application, irrigation management, variety selection, and curing were evaluated in 2010. These were important questions that arose during the 2009 season. Although not every grower will utilize every method tested (wholesale growers will require a dedicated curing facility), our results will be included in a production guide that will be distributed to farmers in Kentucky free of charge.

Impacts and Contributions/Outcomes

Impacts outcomes

Yields were down in 2010 due to drought and therefore dollar returns were less to growers. However, several growers in 2010 made the decision to move to larger scale wholesale production. Growers typically were able to charge $17 per 40 pound box on a wholesale market, compared to $20-$24 on a retail market. Four growers have picked up wholesale contracts and are eager to expand. The development of a central coop curing facility will help expand this market.

On average yields of no 1. sweetpotatoes were 250 boxes per acre (compared to 500+ in 2009). At an average of $18 box (wholesale and retail) with nearly 15 acres of production this would be worth $67,500 to participating growers.

By June of 2011 we intend to print The Sweetpotato Production Guide for Kentucky utilizing information gained from projects associated with this program. This will greatly help growers wanting to pursue production after this project is over.

This project has shown that there can be successful alternatives to tobacco not only Eastern Kentucky, but the rest of the state. If a curing storage facility can be procured (funded by State and County funding) wholesale acreage can be increased. This is a limiting factor at the moment. None of this would have happened without the funding from this grant program. This project has been extremely rewarding for the growers involved.


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