A cloud of white clay dust erupted from my jeans as I slapped my hands on my legs, trying in vain to remove the dirt from my hands. I've always remembered that hot Mississippi morning in September when I was when I was visiting my cousins and helping them dig sweet potatoes. We wanted to finish early so we would have time to go fishing later before it got dark.
To them, digging for those golden roots in the ground was a living; to me it was something that was standing in the way of us having fun. My uncle and my dad were brothers. While my dad left the farm to pursue other work, his brother stayed home and raised kids and sweet potatoes.
Lots and lots of sweet potatoes! I don't believe he ever aspired to having his sons reach such lofty agricultural heights, but the seeds of success had been planted long ago and after a half century, they seem to have matured. That morning I learned something very important about the sweet potato business. It's hard work! The old adage that the farmer works from sunup to sundown is a myth. Many times I've visited my cousins and found them straddling the old John Deere at midnight, anticipating a rain storm that was moving in from Louisiana. Maybe it's because of those early encounters with those 'taters lying on the freshly turned earth by my uncle's plow that has made the sweet potato a favorite food of mine. I like them because they taste so good! I've eaten them baked, glazed, candied and even as a fruit punch, which was delicious.
There are literally hundreds of ways to prepare them! Sweet potato farming has come a long way from my uncle's sixty acres of 'taters 50 years ago. I remember that he would drive the tractor over the potato vines and cut them off with a bush hog. Next he would plow up the potatoes, leaving them exposed so that the family could pick them up and put them in baskets. They were then taken to the barn where they were laid out on screens and washed with a hose.
They were then packed in bushel baskets and loaded onto a two and a half ton truck. My cousins and I woke before dawn the next morning and drove to Memphis where the potatoes were delivered to grocery stores. That was my early memory of a city slicker's view of potato farm life. A lot has changed over the years. Instead of the little 60 acre 'tater patch, my cousins produced 2500 acres of sweet potatoes this year in several different varieties.
After they ran out of their own land, it seemed that they leased every vacant lot or field they could find and planted more potatoes. That little tractor of my uncle's has been replaced with a dozen or more huge machines that are capable of plowing 28 feet of Mississippi clay in one pass. They still pick up the potatoes by hand, but this time it's done by a couple of hundred migrant workers who follow the harvests.
The potatoes are then dumped in bushel baskets, taken to a hopper and loaded onto a conveyer belt. They're then moved onto a wagon where they're sorted and graded; big ones in this box and the little ones in another. This is just the beginning of the harvest. From here the potatoes move to a huge machine where they're washed and waxed, sorted and graded again, packed into boxes and then moved to the potato sheds for storing. Some are packed off to canneries while others are stacked in huge 18 wheelers that go to just about every state in the union. Some are even sent to Europe.
I've left out the part where there are no idle days in the winter. With more than a million bushels of potatoes in the storage shed and spring fast approaching, it's time to start preparing again for the next crop. It's a never ending cycle which leaves little time for fishing. I love my cousins and the successes they've made, but I'm glad my dad decided to leave the farm. It's much too much work for me!.
Bob Alexander is a true son of the south, USA. He is well experienced in barbeque, fishing and leisure living. Visit his site at: http://www.bluemarlinbob.com