Small-scale tobacco farmers in eastern Kentucky who are looking for alternatives due to changes in the tobacco market are discovering that a relatively easy, often profitable transition lies in sweet potatoes.

With relatively low input and capital costs and a short learning curve, they are able to earn gross returns of up to $7,000 per acre, mostly through local sales.

“Sweet potatoes are a pretty good alternative, at least for our growers, because a lot of the equipment they used for tobacco can be used for sweet potatoes, particularly the transplanters.

“So they don’t have to buy a lot of new equipment,” says University of Kentucky Extension Vegetable Specialist Tim Coolong. “Economically, it’s been very good for them.”

Coolong received a 2009 SARE grant to research and demonstrate sweet potato growing on several farms and has helped about 15 farmers — most, but not all former tobacco producers — grow the highly nutritious vegetable.

Meanwhile, in Mississippi — the country’s third largest producer of sweet potatoes — SARE-funded research helps the state’s growers adopt sustainable practices and cash in on organic sales by showing them how they can better manage their soil with cover crops and conservation tillage.

Only one grower in Mississippi currently produces organic sweet potatoes, yet organic can fetch a premium at fresh markets and through sales to processors, particularly for baby food, says Mississippi State University researcher Ramon Arancibia.

“Companies like Gerber don’t want pesticides, or even a lot of fertilizers.”