Growth and diversification is a high risk enterprise in agriculture, but one that is paying off for North Carolina growers in an area known as the Sweet Potato Belt.

Over 200,000 acres of vegetables are grown annually in North Carolina, including more than 36,000 acres of sweet potatoes. A large percentage of sweet potatoes are grown in the Sweet Potato Belt, which is a 10-county area, located along I-95 in the state.

While sweet potatoes are the primary crop grown in the Belt, the area has been a hot-spot for myriad vegetable production, from sprite melons to peppers. The area is also typical of large, diversified farms that have taken in many smaller farms, including vegetable farms.

J.B. Rose and Sons in Nashville, N.C., is a one such diversified operation that includes over 500 acres of sweet potatoes, 500 acres of tobacco, 150 acres of cucumbers and over 4,000 acres of cotton and soybeans.

Allen Rose, who along with his brother David own and operate the farm, says it’s not as diversified as it seems. “We have two groups of crops, he explains, cotton and soybeans require similar equipment, except for harvesting. Sweet potatoes, tobacco and cucumbers also use similar equipment and have similar labor demands, he explains.

Diversification into vegetable production has been a common practice among growers in North Carolina’s Sweet Potato Belt. Wilson County Extension Agent Billy Little says many growers have either gone into sweet potatoes and cucumbers or melons and cabbage, but rarely do these ever crossover, Little says.

Little says the Sweet Potato Belt in North Carolina is filled with large acreage vegetable and row crop farming operations. We see smaller farmers go out of business and those who stay in get bigger and bigger, Little says.

Among those getting bigger is the Rose farming operation, and it has changed significantly over the years. At one time they were primarily corn farmers, but they grow no corn today. In 1983, a consultant suggested they try a few acres of sweet potatoes. Since that time, they have grown into one of the larger growers in North Carolina’s Sweet Potato Belt.

“We are in a four-year rotation with most crops. On some land, with irrigation, we can go to a three-year rotation. On most of our land, we go tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton, then soybeans. Soybeans help bring nematode levels down low enough to come back the following year with tobacco, without having to fumigate the soil,” Rose says.

“Will Connell is our crop consultant, and he has been a big help in making our farm plan from year to year. He scouts all our cotton and soybeans and PRC (pesticide residue clean) tobacco, because we can’t use a lot of pesticides on the PRC land,” Rose says.

Rose says sweet potatoes have become one of their staple crops, but cautioned it can be a very tough business. “Sweet potatoes have been a good crop for us since 1983, but it is an up and down business. We’ve sold sweet potatoes for as much as $18 per 50-pound box to $3 a box. We don’t seem to get the highs in prices that we used to get.

Three years ago, Rose was among a small group of North Carolina sweet potato growers who began participating in a multi-state sweet potato IPM project that has yielded big benefits.

“We were spraying too much and not seeing consistent results. Working with North Carolina State University entomologists as part of a sweet potato IPM program, has helped us lower insecticide spraying on our sweet potatoes. This year (2006) has been a good year for us with insect damage, either we are doing a better job or pressure was light,” Rose says.

For growers thinking about expanding traditional row crop operations to include vegetable crops, Rose says it will be difficult, but not impossible.

Labor for one thing is difficult to come by and getting harder every year. To start out with no labor camps, building these facilities alone would be a tremendous cost to get into the sweet potato or cucumber business and doesn’t even include actual production of a crop, Rose says.

Fuel costs and labor costs for our tobacco and vegetable crops has increased every year for the past few years. At best we can cut fuel costs by 10 percent. We get fuel surcharges on the services we buy, but we can’t charge an extra cost for our crops.

No-tilling and strip-tilling soybeans has helped the North Carolina growers cope with escalating fuel costs. “We used to disk land twice, and bed, and cultivate, making three trips over the soil. Going to no-till probably cut our fuel costs in half,” Rose says.

In many cases sweet potato growers must be certified as using Good Agricultural Practices. Otherwise, many retailers simply won’t buy their product. More and more North Carolina sweet potatoes are being shipped to foreign markets, but only by EuroGAP certified growers, packers and shippers.

e-mail: rroberson@farmpress.com