SWEET POTATO CULTURE
SWEET POTATO CULTURE. The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) belongs to the Convolvulaceae, or morning glory family. It is a native of tropical America and is unrelated to the true yam, which is a climbing plant of the genus Dioscorea and an Old World native. The sweet potato was first cultivated in Texas by the Spanish and was later grown by Anglo-American settlers. Several varieties of sweet potatoes have been grown in Texas, including Puerto Rico, Goldrush, Redgold, Allgold, Centennial, Jewel, and Red Velvet. By the 1950s the Puerto Rico was the most prevalent variety in the state. Sweet potatoes grow best in light sandy-loam soils with a clay subsoil. Before planting sweet potato fields should be well drained and well worked to loosen the soil and promote the growth of roots. Root sprouts and slips from vine cuttings are used in propagation and planting. By the late 1980s about half of the sweet potatoes cultivated in Texas were set in the fields with the aid of a mechanical planter. The planting season in Texas starts in April or May and extends through June; harvest takes place from August through October and sometimes into November. Texas sweet potato production is often affected by severe cold or wet weather conditions, insects such as the grasshopper, and diseases. Sweet potatoes are subject to damage from relatively few insect pests, but a variety of fungal and viral diseases attack both the growing plants and potatoes in storage. The incidence of disease can be lessened by the use of disease-free seed, treatment of the crops with fungicides, and careful harvest and curing practices that minimize injuries and allow for healing of damaged skin. Crop rotation at least every four years also helps to prevent disease. Sweet potatoes were grown in Texas in the late 1800s primarily for home consumption. The 1870 census shows 68 of 139 counties reporting production of over 10,000 bushels (5,000 hundredweight) and a total state production of 2,188,041 bushels. Only eighteen counties reported no sweet potato production in 1870.
Sweet potatoes were not grown commercially in Texas until the early 1900s, when transportation networks were improved. By 1925 potato storage finally became a successful phase of the industry. That year Texas produced 450,000 bushels of sweet potatoes. The total area of acres planted in Texas reached a peak in 1927, when 133,000 acres was cultivated for a harvest of 11,970,000 bushels, a figure which led all other states that year. Throughout the 1920s and the 1930s sweet potatoes were the leading vegetable crop in the state, and production often ranked second in the nation behind the state of Georgia. The average annual production for the period 1937–46 was 5,121,000 bushels from 61,000 acres. During the 1940s many industrial uses for the sweet potato were developed, including production of chemicals, industrial alcohol, and starch. The process of dehydration aided in storage and shipment. The 1948 Texas crop produced 3,250,000 bushels from 50,000 acres and was valued at $8,288,000. In 1950 Camp, Smith, Upsher, and Cherokee counties were the largest producers, and in 1954 the state planted 30,000 acres of sweet potatoes, producing 1,350,000 bushels valued at $4,320,000. In 1958 Texas ranked third behind Louisiana and North Carolina in total acreage nationally, and the potatoes were marketed widely in the North, Middle West, and Pacific Coast regions of the country throughout the decade. Throughout the 1960s sweet potatoes were grown primarily in East Texas, with some production coming from South Texas. In 1963 Van Zandt County ranked third in the nation in total production, and throughout the 1960s Texas produced an average value of over $4,000,000 annually. In 1962 the introduction of plastic covers to protect sweet potato beds helped to increase yields. Irrigation of limited acreage was tried successfully on the High Plains and in West Texas throughout the decade.
As with other vegetables, sweet potato yields increased in the latter half of the twentieth century due to improved irrigation, fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Northeast Texas was the center of production in the state by the 1970s, and in 1970 13,000 acres produced a crop valued at $6,552,000. Total acreage harvested in 1984 was 7,300 acres with a crop valued at $18,469,000 and over 80 percent of the total concentrated in Northeast Texas. The leading counties were Van Zandt and Wood. Although acreage has decreased since the 1920s, sweet potatoes were still one of the leading vegetable crops in the state by the late 1980s. The number of acres planted continued to decrease into the 1990s. Sweet potatoes planted on 7,000 acres in 1989 were valued at $12,474,000, 6,200 acres in 1990 produced a crop worth $6,696,000, and 5,500 acres in 1991 had a production value of $11,022,000.
Fred O. Boecker, Jr., "Sweet Potatoes: Fifth-Ranking Vegetable Crop in Texas," Texas Business Review 34 (May 1960). Sam Cotner et al., Keys to Profitable Texas Sweet Potato Production, Storage, and Marketing (Texas Agricultural Extension Service Bulletin 1274 [College Station, 1979]). Samuel Lee Evans, Texas Agriculture, 1880–1930 (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Texas, 1960). Homer C. Thompson, Vegetable Crops (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1949).
The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.Cindy Wilke, "SWEET POTATO CULTURE," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/afs03), accessed May 25, 2015. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.