It’s sweet potato harvest time and the beginning of what many hope will become a new industry for the Arkansas Delta.

“We have probably the only strategic plan in the country that envisions the sweet potato as an agent of social change,” said Steven Murray, chancellor of Phillips Community College of the University of Arkansas.

Murray also is chairman of Delta Bridge, a community-based effort to revitalize Phillips County.

Stretched along the meandering Mississippi River, the county is one of Arkansas’ poorest. Its 2004 per-capita income was $20,851, compared to $25,814 for Arkansas and $33,050 for the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The county’s August unemployment rate, 9.7 percent, was the state’s third highest and nearly twice the statewide rate of 5 percent.

At the heart of Delta Bridge’s sweet-potato project is the Arkansas Delta Produce Marketing Association. The limited liability corporation was formed last year by five black-owned farmer operations in Phillips County and adjacent Lee County – those run by Ben Anthony, Earnest Bradley, the Cox Brothers, Floyd Morrow and Harvey Williams.

Winrock International, a Little Rock-based nonprofit, began working almost four years ago with that group and other black farmers in the Delta who grow vegetables, said Annett Pagan, Winrock’s managing director for U.S. programs.

Unlike farmers who produce the state’s row-crops – rice, cotton, soybeans, wheat, corn and grain sorghum – vegetable farmers are not eligible for federal farm-program safety-net payments. They also are more dependent on farm labor and must aggressively market their crops.

Sweet potatoes are considered a relatively high-profit crop, but the farmers lacked a storage and distribution center that would enable them to sell the crop year-round and at better prices, Pagan said.

So Winrock asked the Central Arkansas Resource Conservation and Development Council to lead efforts to build a facility where farmers could lease space. The Conway-based council is a nonprofit organization dedicated to rural development in 10 Arkansas counties – Faulkner, Garland, Hot Spring, Lonoke, Monroe, Perry, Phillips, Prairie, Pulaski and Saline.

“Winrock’s role has been to stay focused on helping the farmers make good sales at good margins,” Pagan said.

The outlook for sweet potatoes is good because they’re rich in vitamins A, B-6, C and E, as well as potassium, fiber, manganese and folic acid – attributes that are making them gain popularity with health-conscious Americans.

Winrock has helped the farmers attend trade shows to generate sales leads and identify reputable brokers, primarily for their “No. 1” (fresh-market) potatoes. Introductions also were made to two major Arkansas-based processors which use “No. 2” (processing) potatoes.

Gerber Products Co. in Fort Smith, which annually processes about 18 million pounds of sweet potatoes into baby food, buys about 60 percent of its supply from Mississippi, 30 percent to 35 percent from North Carolina and the balance from Arkansas, quality control manager John Aselege said.

Bright Harvest Sweet Potato Co. Inc. in Clarksville, which buys 16 million to 18 million pounds of sweet potatoes to make a variety of frozen items including sweet-potato patties, center cuts, casseroles and mashed sweet potatoes, buys 96 percent to 97 percent of its potatoes from the Vardaman, Miss., area, director of operations John Eyberg said.

“The biggest thing about growing sweet potatoes is you’ve got to have a market,” said Larry Odom, who grows about 50 acres of sweet potatoes near Cabot in Lonoke County.

“There’s no such thing as contracts. You have working relationships,” and service is key, Odom said.

Sweet potatoes were a $309 million crop in 2005, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, which tracks sweet-potato production in nine states. North Carolina led the nation with 40 percent of the approximately 90,000 acres that were planted in the crop last year. California, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama round out the top five sweet potato producing states.

The USDA forecasts a nearly 6 percent increase in this year’s sweet-potato production, with a 1.7 billion pound harvest that would set a 30-year record. Prices also are projected to be strong, approaching 2003’s record of $19.20 per hundredweight, or 100 pounds, said Andy Jerardo, an agricultural economist with USDA’s Economic Research Service.

In 2006, 14 Arkansas farmers planted about 1,900 acres of sweet potatoes, said Mark Stoll of the State Plant Board.

Stoll manages the board’s sweet-potato “green tag” program, which certifies that production is free of sweet-potato weevils, making it possible for Arkansas sweet potatoes to cross state lines. Because most of the state’s commercial sweet-potato farmers sell at least a portion of their crop outside Arkansas, participants in the green tag program represent the majority of the state’s producers.

About 65 percent of Arkansas’ green-tag sweet potatoes are produced in Ashley and Chicot counties, many of them grown by Louisiana-based farmers, Stoll said. The state’s largest sweet-potato producers probably are the Matthews Brothers, who farm north of Wynne in Cross County. Terris Matthews, a fourth-generation sweet-potato farmer, said he and his dad, uncle and cousin planted about 550 acres of sweet potatoes this year.

Arkansas Delta Produce, in contrast, grew only 30 acres of sweet potatoes in 2005, said Harvey Williams, who is in charge of sales for the group. But this year’s production was increased to 230 acres, he said.

Earlier this month, Williams was overseeing the harvest in one of Floyd Morrow’s sweet potato fields near Postelle in northwest Phillips County. Morrow guided a tractor with a “flip plow” through the field to dislodge the potatoes from the soil. Following close on his wheels were 22 workers who scurried along the dusty furrows collecting the red skinned, orange-hearted root vegetables. Each worker filled a plastic hamper that held almost one bushel – about 40 pounds of potatoes – and then dumped the hamper into 20-bushel wooden crates perched on a flatbed truck that tagged alongside.

All of Arkansas Delta Produce’s 2006 crop will be stored in a temporary facility at Marianna in Lee County. The Central Arkansas Resource Conservation and Development Council announced in April that it had secured more than $2 million in grants to build a sweet-potato storage and distribution facility. Foundation work began last month on 20 acres owned by the city of Helena-West Helena along U.S. 49 in Phillips County.

The building should be completed in March, said Bruce Leggitt, the council’s sweet potato project manager. The facility will be able to dry, cure and store up to 110,000 bushels of sweet potatoes in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment.

Curing involves keeping a freshly harvested crop at approximately 85 degrees and 85 percent humidity for about a week to allow the skin on the potatoes to heal and set, said Jack Odom, Larry Odom’s brother, who grows about 200 acres of sweet potatoes near Austin in Lonoke County. Curing also permits the starches in the potatoes to convert to sugars, making cured potatoes sweeter than those sold “green.” Sweet potatoes can be stored at 55 degrees for as long as a year, Jack Odom said.

The facility is expected to employ three full-time workers and up to 27 part-time employees.

The building is designed so that it can be expanded to handle up to 300,000 bushels of sweet potatoes, the production from about 1,000 acres, Pagan said. Nearly 25 additional black farmers with more than 14,000 acres of land in Lee, Monroe and Phillips counties have been identified as possible sweet-potato producers.

Arkansas has the potential to become a more important sweet-potato state, said Bill Mulkey, an agronomist and sweet-potato expert who lives in Oak Grove, La.

“There’s a lot of good land in the Helena area that’s suitable for sweet-potato production,” said Mulkey, an Arkansas native who helped design the storage facility and is giving advice to Arkansas Delta Produce’s farmers.

Harvey Williams said he and his partners in Arkansas Delta Produce are excited about what the future will bring.

“We look at this project as a way to provide the area with a new production crop, one with real potential for profitable growth,” he said.