AGRIBUSINESS: Sweet Potatoes in Iowa
When you think about Iowa crops, corn, soybeans, and maybe apples or pumpkins will come to mind. But Dr. Ajay Nair and his team are working to bring a southern crop up north.
Sweet potatoes are what Nair is working with at the ISU College of Agriculture’s Horticulture research station in Ames.
“We are appropriating sweet potato cultivars that can be grown here in Iowa.” Nair says. He has grown sweet potatoes all summer and it is harvest time.
The first step is clearing the vines and plastic covering the plots, with the goal of keeping the soil warm. Nair and his graduate and undergraduate students begin by cutting the plastic, then pulling it off.
Next, a harvesting device called an undercutter is pulled by tractor. Nair describes it, “It’s a U-Shaped blade that goes behind the tractor, and the blade digs into the soil. And as the tractor pulls, it just gently pushes the sweet potato up to the surface.”
Nair and his team are working on this project to ensure that growers in Iowa can have open options. He says his inspiration for the project started with a grower telling him success stories of selling sweet potatoes. Nair says, “This could be a good opportunity for a grower to find a niche in the market.”
Nair says the sweet potato yields in his experiments are performing near the national average of 16,000 to 18,000 pounds per acre, hovering around the 14,000 to 15,000 range.
The final step in the process is curing, which ideally takes two weeks. During that time the potatoes are stored at 85° Fahrenheit, with humidity at a constant 85%. After that, sweet potatoes can keep for up to eight months, if kept at 55° Fahrenheit.