East Arkansas farmers who want to diversity in an area where soybeans, cotton and race have long been the primary crops may look forward to a sweet-potato storage and distribution facility that is planned for Phillips County.

The $2 million operation will serve a Gerber baby food plant at Fort Smith, developers said Wednesday.

Financing for the plant will come from government and private sources. That includes an $800,000 federal appropriation and a $400,000 grant from the Walton Family Foundation, which was arranged through Southern Financial Partners and the Delta Bridge Project.

Applications are being processed through the U.S. Economic Development Administration for $500,000 and the U.S. Agriculture Department for $200,000.

East Arkansas was once a significant producer of sweet potatoes; the area has ideal soil conditions. But decades ago, North Carolina became the leading sweet potato producer in the nation and production in east Arkansas fell.

“Phillips County can once again be a world class grower of sweet potatoes, but currently there are no sweet potato storage facilities in the Phillips County area, which forces the farmers to sell their crops at harvest time when supply is highest and prices are lowest,” said Bill Mulkey, an expert on sweet potato production who serves as technical adviser to the growers.

“In addition, sweet potato buyers favor farmers who can supply sweet potatoes on a 12-month basis, which is impossible without adequate drying, curing, and storage facilities. I believe that you will see Phillips County become a significant sweet potato producer oThe Gerber plant has been buying its sweet potatoes from North Carolina.

nce again. This facility is the start of that process,” Mulkey said.

Arkansas’ U.S. senators helped secure the federal money.

“I applaud the Walton Family Foundation Board for its support of this innovative plan to help bring economic stability to the Delta,” Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., said.

Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., said combining private and federal money will help the Delta region.

“The sweet potato storage and processing facility will allow local farmers to remain in the homes they own and plant more crop acres on the land they own, which will stimulate the local economy,” Pryor said.

Tom Catlett, chairman of the Central Arkansas Resource Conservation and Development Council, announced the facility.

“This project is the hopeful beginning of an industry for Phillips County,” Catlett said.

In its first phase, the facility will have storage for 112,000 bushels of sweet potatoes. Organizers say they hope the facility leads to sweet potato processing and other value-added production.

The Gerber plant has been buying its sweet potatoes from North Carolina.

A number of other groups helped the project, including the Arkansas Delta Produce Marketing Association LLC, Winrock International, Phillips County government, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff 2501 Program, and the Clinton School of Public Service.