Some of you have likely noticed the absence of one item from the boxes in general this year: Sweet Potatoes. We plant sweet potatoes every spring and normally harvest the first roots in October. This gives them just enough time to sweeten up for Thanksgiving.
Sweet potatoes grow well in the Sacramento Valley. They love hot weather and they have few disease or pest problems. But there are two big challenges to growing them.
First is the way they are planted. Most of the crops we grow are either seeded directly into the soil, or grown in plugs in the greenhouse. Sweet potatoes are grown from cuttings taken off of tubers that are planted in the ground in early spring. These cuttings, called “Slips” are just a leafy stem with a handful of roots. They come to us in boxes of 1500, packed tightly together.
We don’t have a special planter designed for sweet potato slips, so we use a planter made for potted plants. It works only marginally well, so we spend lots of time “fixing” the field, making sure all the stems are adequately covered with soil.
If it’s too hot or too windy within a few days of planting the field, the fragile slips are prone to wilting and shriveling up, and we have had issues with this in the past.
The second big challenge with growing sweet potatoes is harvesting them. Although we plant them in rows just as we do all other crops, the roots grow in all directions and form much deeper in the soil than root crops such as carrots, beets or potatoes. We dig them with our potato harvester, but we have to dig down a foot deeper than we do with potatoes — full 18 inches. This means we are bringing up the equivalent of a 5 gallon bucket of soil for every inch that the harvester moves. We can harvest an acre of potatoes in two days, but it takes five or six days to do an acre of sweet potatoes.
This year, we never even got to the second challenge. The weather was perfect for the sweet potatoes the day we planted and for the whole next week. But less than half the plants survived. Other farms in our area who got their plants from the same nursery had the same result. Everyone has a different theory about what went wrong. But it simply wasn’t worth irrigating and weeding that field all season, so we turned it under.
We did grow extra Delicata squash (planted later in the summer) to make up for the loss of the sweet potatoes, as many people consider them similar — and we have been sending you more of those than usual. As we go into winter, however, we will bring in organic sweet potatoes from other growers who didn’t have the same problems we did.