Chances are that if you are eating Arkansas grown sweet potatoes, their journey probably began at Mississippi State or Louisiana State University, said Obadiah Njue, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff researcher and Cooperative Extension Program horticulture specialist. Next year, the journey will begin closer to home – at the UAPB biotechnology laboratory.
Sweet potatoes do not grow from seeds but are grown from plants or sprouts called slips or from the roots of the previous season’s crops. Growers need virus-free slips in time to allow for a 120-day growing season. Most Arkansas producers buy slips from two Arkansas slip producers who get their seed potatoes from Louisiana, North Carolina or Mississippi.
This may soon be a thing of the past as UAPB scientists Muthusamy Manoharan, associate professor, and Sathish Ponniah, plant breeder and Extension associate, have produced virus-free sweet potato plants and transferred them to the UAPB greenhouse. Arkansas slip producers are interested in getting their seed potatoes from UAPB, which already has two acres of generation zero sweet potatoes under cultivation. Seed potatoes from generation zero will be made available to Arkansas slip growers.
Once mature, sweet potatoes are harvested, usually mechanically or by hand. Out of the ground sweet potatoes do not go directly to the store or farmers’ markets. They must first be cured for up to two weeks to heal any wounds and increase sugar content.
“Sweet potatoes are a fitting crop for small or limited resource farmers,” said Njue.
Except for the water needed the first 20-30 days after planting, not much water is needed as they put down deep roots. If properly cured and stored, sweet potatoes may have a shelf life of six months or more.
Eight sweet potato related research projects are underway at UAPB, including the mass multiplication of virus-free sweet potato through tissue culture.
UAPB also participates in the National Sweetpotato Collaborator’s Group Yield Trials annually. Other projects range from the profitability of fresh market sweet potatoes versus processed sweet potatoes, evaluation of vegetable rotations for small farms and environmental stresses affecting sweet potato production and using sweet potato leaves as a potential antioxidant source for a fish diet.
Carol Sanders is a writer/editor at the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences.