As the popularity of the sweet potato in the American diet has increased dramatically in the past decade, a growing number of small and mid-sized producers are seeking opportunities to enter the market. The Sweetpotato Foundation Seed Program at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB) is working to support more small-scale, Southern farmers in the industry by offsetting the challenges that have traditionally excluded them from participation.
“Because they are packed with vitamins and are a good source of dietary fiber, sweet potatoes appeal to the tastes of an expanding base of health-conscious consumers, with consumption increasing 80 percent in the last 15 years,” Dr. Edmund Buckner, interim dean/director for the UAPB School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences, said. “Despite increased popularity of the product, the cost and limited availability of high-quality sweet potato planting materials has kept small-scale producers in Arkansas and other Southern states out of the business.”
Industry challenges for small-scale producers
Sweet potatoes are naturally susceptible to viruses and mutations that accumulate with each planting cycle, Buckner said. As farmers plant and replant sweet potatoes from season to season, the quality of the plant declines and yields are ultimately reduced. At this point, a farmer needs to start over and plant first-generation seed potatoes produced by high-quality, virus-free sweet potato slips, the sets of plant stems from which the potatoes grow.
For decades, however, Arkansas farmers lacked convenient access to the virus-free slips that are only available through a certified foundation seed program. Instead, they had to purchase second-generation seed potatoes from commercial or state-supported programs outside of Arkansas. As a result, they experienced a high cost of production, compromised planting time due to shipping challenges, diminished quality of planting materials, and a significant reduction in profit margins.
Finding a solution
“As an 1890 land-grant institution, UAPB seeks to meet the requirements of both large and small-scale, limited-resource, and socially disadvantaged farmers in the region,” Dr. Muthusamy Manoharan, interim assistant dean of 1890 programs at UAPB, said. “The university recognized local producers’ need for better access to virus-indexed, quality seed plants that are made available through certified foundation seed, and sought support from the Arkansas state legislature for the creation of an in-state foundation seed program.”
In 2009, the state of Arkansas provided $400,000 to support UAPB’s efforts toward the development of the UAPB Sweetpotato Foundation Seed Program for Arkansas, Manoharan said. In 2014, UAPB was designated as one of the six universities that make up the National Clean Plant Network for Sweetpotatoes, an organization supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that promotes the use of pathogen-tested, healthy planting material for national food crops. A state-of-the-art tissue culture lab was established on campus for UAPB researchers to develop and multiply virus-indexed sweet potato slips for use in the production of high-quality seed potatoes.
Growing high-quality, virus-tested seed potatoes
The intensive process of growing virus-free planting materials begins with removal of the plant’s meristems, tiny stem segments that contain only a few cells and are devoid of any vascular material that might contain viruses, for culture on tissue culture medium. Following the development of new plants, researchers conduct tests on a molecular level to ensure the new plants contain no viruses. The healthy, virus-indexed plants are taken to the greenhouse for multiplication. The slips, which are referred to as generation zero (G0) slips, are then ready for sale to local farmers.
Expanding market opportunities in the region
“UAPB is selling G0 slips to local farmers at a subsidized rate to boost the sweet potato industry in Arkansas and throughout the South,” Buckner said. “Because they have a much higher per-acre profit margin than traditional row crops, sweet potatoes can be a great option for mid-sized farmers who struggle to compete in the row crop market. These farmers can consider growing sweet potatoes to access a new and growing market with better margins, helping them remain profitable on smaller acreages.”
Buckner said the increased availability of virus-indexed planting materials could potentially open up entirely new market opportunities in the region.
“Rather than producing sweet potatoes for consumption, some Arkansas farmers can consider starting a sweet potato slip production business,” he said. “In this case, a small farmer could purchase G0 slips from UAPB to produce seed, which they plant in beds to raise G1 slips. They can then sell the new slips to other farmers in the region, who, in turn, plant the sweet potatoes that will be served on American dinner tables.”
The rise of a slip production business would be a new phenomenon in Arkansas, Buckner said. The trend could create business opportunities in the Southern region and ensure an additional supply of virus-indexed potatoes to growers across the country who could expect more consistent, higher-quality yields.
“As health-conscious consumers continue to boost sales of fresh sweet potatoes, as well as processed products such as sweet potato chips and fries, the national market would greatly benefit from the increased participation of small and mid-sized farmers,” Buckner said. “The UAPB Sweetpotato Foundation Seed Program seeks to supply limited-resource and socially disadvantaged farmers with the cost-effective, high-quality planting materials they need to create new economic opportunities throughout the region.”
Author: Will Hehemann, Extension Communications Specialist, School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff
Caption for top photo: Observing virus-indexed plants and seed potatoes in the lab.
All photos courtesy of School of Agriculture, Fisheries and Human Sciences, University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff