A reminder of the golden age of sweet potato farming

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Located in a rural area of Lexington County, SC, is a dilapidated sweet potato drying house. If you’re unfamiliar with the concept of a sweet potato drying house, welcome to the club. I, too, had no idea such a structure existed until I happened across it recently.

From its appearance, it’s safe to say that it’s been many a year since any sweet potatoes were cured in the rectangular wooden structure. The building has a single door, four openings in the roof, and four small windows and one larger window. It was definitely not built for comfort.

Estimating its age is inexact at best, but because it was built with round-headed nails it was almost certainly built after 1890 and, from its appearance, most likely before World War I.

The structure recently achieved higher visibility because, after many years of being surrounded by thick woods, the land surrounding it was cleared, leaving it sitting in the open.

When constructed, sweet potatoes were a staple of the American diet. At the beginning of the 20th century the tubers were the second most-important root crop in the nation. Per-capita consumption of sweet potatoes in 1920 was 31 pounds, but by the start of the 21st century that figure had dwindled to just 4 pounds per person, according to the US Department of Agriculture.

Storing sweet potatoes is a relatively straightforward. The bottom line is to cure the tubers, than keep the potatoes dry, to fend off rot, and prevent them from getting too warm or too cold.

The main goal behind curing is to heal injuries so that sweet potatoes remain in good condition for marketing during the winter and to preserve “seed” roots for the next crop, according to the Cooperative Extension Service at the University of Georgia College of Agriculture.

Healing takes place rapidly at 85 degrees Fahrenheit and between 85 to 90 percent humidity, for four to seven days.

Sweet potatoes

Sweet potatoes in all their glory.

“Curing should start as soon after harvest as possible to heal injuries before disease-producing organisms gain entrance,” according to the Georgia Cooperative Extension Service. “Healing involves production of cells that are very much like the skin in their ability to prevent infection. These new cells form in a layer just below the surface of the injuries. Because this layer is corky, it is commonly called wound cork. Healing is more rapid under clean cuts and skinned areas than in deep wounds where tissue is crushed. The rate of healing differs a little among varieties.”

In the above structure, heaters and exhaust flues were used to promote circulation, remove excessive condensation and prevent accumulation of carbon dioxide produced by sweet potato roots.

The four holes in the roof were used to vent the flues.

After the tubers were cured, the temperature in the storage house was brought down to a narrow range of between 55 and 59 degrees Fahrenheit, with relative humidity maintained at between 85 and 90 percent.

Much below that and sweet potatoes experienced an increased susceptibility to rot and discoloration, and the quality of roots was diminished, hurting their ability to produce sprouts when planted the following season.

It’s unclear how common standalone sweet potato drying houses were. It’s likely most individuals who raised the tubers simply relied on earthen structures, whether dug into banks or put into holes then simply covered with dirt.

Standalone structures like the one shown above would likely have been used by more than one farmer, a cooperative of sorts, or by an individual with an extremely large spread.

(Top: Old sweet potato drying house, located in rural Lexington County, SC, west of Columbia.)

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Southern cotton, hit by rains, late to mature

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A recent drive through rural South Carolina shows evidence of a healthy cotton crop, albeit one that was late to mature.

Cotton pickers and module builders are just now ramping up in the Carolinas, Georgia and many other parts of the Deep South, the result of a growing season slowed by unusually large amounts of rain this year.

Much of South Carolina, for example, has received 50 or more inches of rain in 2013, anywhere from 8 to 18 inches above average precipitation levels. The same appears to be the case across the region.

In years past, lack of rain has been an issue for cotton farmers, particularly in Texas, a major cotton-growing area, so why is excessive rain an issue?

It’s a factor for several reasons, according to Mark Crosby, Emanuel County (Ga.) extension coordinator:

Heavy rainfall caused excessive erosion on sloping fields and in places in fields where the water puddled, the cotton plants stood in water. The worst fields had areas where the cotton drowned, but, in much of the cotton land, the plants stood in soggy, wet soil for weeks and weeks.

Examination of the crop roots showed very little tap root development and shallow feeder roots. Shallow feeder and tap roots limited the plants ability to take up fertilizer because of a lack of oxygen in the soil.

As soils become more and more saturated and eventually became waterlogged, the effects on cotton plants included yellowing, reduced shoot growth, reduced nutrient uptake, altered hormone levels, and other problems. Some fields of cotton had symptoms of reddening leaves and stems being too wet, as well as typical nitrogen deficiency symptoms.

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China receives first US bulk sorghum shipment

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The burgeoning US-China agriculture-trade relationship was evident late last week when the first-ever bulk shipment of American grain sorghum reached the Asian nation.

The 2.36 million bushel shipment, the first of several scheduled for China this year, reached the port city of Guangzhou, the south China city historically known as Canton, on Oct. 18.

The cargo is designated for animal feed and demonstrates the continued modernization of China’s feed industry, according to Bryan Lohmar, US Grains Council director in China.

“The Council believes US sorghum has significant potential to become a regular feed ingredient in China,” he said. “Sorghum imports from the United States can help keep food prices low and improve China’s overall food security.”

Sorghum, a grain, is among the most efficient crops in conversion of solar energy and use of water. It is known as a high-energy, drought tolerant crop, according to the National Sorghum Producers.

Sorghum was planted on approximately 6.2 million US acres in 2012, with Kansas, Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas and South Dakota the top five-Sorghum producing states.

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Wet weather hurting nation’s pecan crop

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It appears pecan lovers can expect to pay more for their treasured treat.

Record soggy weather in many parts of the Southeastern US has left pecan orchards vulnerable to Cladosporium caryigenum, more commonly known as scab, a fungal disease that scars the husks of pecans, cuts yield and hurts quality.

“We’ve had some wet years before, but not like it has been this summer where it has rained all summer long,” Tom Stevenson, a south Georgia-based pecan orchard manager, told Southeast Farm Press.

The heavy rains which have only abated in the past couple of weeks, hit Georgia, Florida and the Carolinas – among the nation’s main pecan-growing states – particularly hard.

Georgia, the top producer of pecans nationwide, has half of its approximately 150,000 acres of commercial orchards planted in pecan varieties that are susceptible to scab, according to Lenny Wells, University of Georgia Cooperative Extension pecan specialist.

To try to reduce the risk of scab, farmers such as Stevenson have increased spraying of fungicide, according to Southeast Farm Press.

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Southern tobacco-auction rebound continues

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A decade ago, Southern tobacco auctions appeared set to go the way of mule-and-plow farming.

For more than a century, the sign-song chant of auctioneers had wafted through tobacco warehouses from Virginia to the Carolinas and beyond, as buyers and farmers did business in towns big and small across the region, the sweet aroma of cured tobacco ever-present as crop and cash changed hands.

That began to change in the 1990s as tobacco companies increasingly entered into contracts directly with growers to grow the crop.

By the early- to mid-2000s, tobacco auctions were no more. It seemed the late-summer ritual that was as much a part of the area as NASCAR and fish camps was gone for good.

Now, however, the tobacco auction appears to be making a comeback.

Auctions have been held this year everywhere from Danville, Va., to Wilson, N.C., to Lake City, S.C.

The auction provides a broader marketplace for growers to bring their tobacco bales without worrying about big tobacco company regulations, auctioneer Jim Lynch told the Florence (SC) Morning News.

“The main thing is they don’t care about what the moisture is, how much it weighs and those are some of the hoops big tobacco is making them jump through,” said Lynch, of Carolinas Tobacco Auction in Lake City. “Just like we have 32 bales right here that the moisture was I think one tenth of a percentage high and they expected him to haul it all the way back home and go through it and then bring it back.

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Cotton prices drops as projections rise

Global cotton production for the coming year is expected to drop 4 percent, according to estimates by the US Department of Agriculture.

The projected decline is attributed to a significant reduction in Brazil, where the crop for the 2012-13 year is expected to fall by fully one-third.

Record soybean and corn prices, disease outbreak and erratic precipitation are expected to lower the crop in the central Brazilian states of Bahia and Mato Grosso, which together account for more than 80 percent of Brazil’s total annual cotton production, according to Southeast Farm Press.

In the US, production is expected to be slightly more than 17 million bales, which represents a 2 percent increase from the previous month’s USDA estimate and is 11 percent higher than the previous year’s crop, the publication added.

Worldwide, 2012-13 cotton production is estimated at nearly 120 million bales.

Global cotton stocks are expected to be significantly higher this year than last, the USDA also reported.

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Cotton crop proving a mixed bag for 2012

The 2012 cotton season overall hasn’t been anything to brag about, but it’s also been nothing to weep over.

While the jury is still out on cotton for this year, from all reports the crop will be good but not spectacular, according to Southeast Farm Press.

The Southeast enjoyed good growing conditions for much of the year, and Texas rebounded nicely from last year’s disaster. However, heat and drought impacted other cotton-growing areas such as Oklahoma.

Production costs have continued to rise, however, and uncertainty in world stocks has kept prices down.

In Texas, the nation’s largest cotton-growing state, the US Department of Agriculture is predicting that the 2012 cotton crop will total 6.1 million bales, a 74 percent increase over 2011, according to the San Angelo Standard-Times.

More than 350,000 acres of Texas farmland was planted in cotton in 2011, but only 18,000 acres were harvested as the state experienced its worst one-year drought since 1895.

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