Some people love them baked with a sprinkle of brown sugar and a pat of butter on top. Others prefer them boiled, peeled and sliced in a pie topped with cinnamon, sugar, butter and pecans. However you like your sweet potatoes, one thing is for sure. Mississippi has a long history of growing some of the best.
With nearly 110 sweet potato farmers in the state growing on more than 20,000 acres, this specialty crop plays a significant role in the agriculture economy, especially in the five counties that surround Vardaman, Mississippi. The industry contributes nearly $82 million to the state economy.
“Our state is the second largest producer of sweet potatoes in the country,” says Benny Graves, executive director of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council. “And of the 26 packing lines in the state that wash, grade, sort and pack sweet potatoes, 19 of them are located in Calhoun County.”
Why is there such a concentration of sweet potato producers in the Vardaman area? Graves says part of the reason is good old Mississippi know how.
“In many cases, we have five generations of families who have been in the business, so they have a proud tradition and strong knowledge of how to grow great sweet potatoes. Everybody grew sweet potatoes in the 1920s and 1930s in the rural Southeast, but as agriculture modernized, small farms gave way to larger ones and they focused on more than just growing sweet potatoes. But in Vardaman they kept that focus and got really good at it. They have a great reputation in the marketplace for the quality of their product.”
He also explains that the climate and soil are especially conducive to sweet potato production, ensuring a good sugar content in the product which, in turn, ensures a happy customer.
Nowhere across the country are sweet potatoes more celebrated than at the annual Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival. Held for one week in early November, the festival is a local tradition that highlights the importance of the crop to the entire area.
“Vardaman has hosted this festival for almost 40 years,” says Jim Blue, who along with his wife Maxine, have been volunteer co-chairs of the event for 15 years. “It’s a tradition for area farmers and families, and over the years it has become an opportunity to not just celebrate the sweet potato but also serves as a reunion for families and classes.”
The festival features more than 100 craft vendors and also includes contests for children and adults such as a daily sweet potato pie eating contest. There are also sweet potato recipe competitions, and The National FFA Organization sells sweet potatoes throughout the festival.
It’s also an opportunity to recognize the work of sweet potato farmers in the area. Blue explains that the festival culminates in a banquet where young farmers and community members who have helped promote the region’s top crop are honored for their work.
“It’s a popular family event that’s based around a popular crop that has a long history in this area,” says Blue.