LITTLE ROCK - With sweet-potato-casserole season upon us, this is a good time to consider the significant economic impact of the sweet potato on Arkansas.
I saw sweet-potato production in person in August when I visited Ridgeview Farm near Wynne, where Terris Matthews is the fourth generation of his family to grow sweet potatoes.
Rick Wimberley, the extension agent in Cross County, says the Matthewses grow more sweet potatoes at their Cross County farm than any other farmer in Arkansas. Cross County planted 2,800 acres in sweet potatoes, more than any other county. The Matthewses cultivated about 2,500 of those acres. Other top sweet potato counties include Phillips, Chicot and St. Francis.
The records of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture show that 13 farmers in eight counties grew sweet potatoes on 5,000 acres in 2017. Arkansas’ sweet potato crop ranks sixth in the nation.
Sweet potato farming is a labor-intensive crop, which makes it an expensive crop. Sweet potatoes cost about $4,000 an acre to produce compared to about $600 an acre to grow cotton.
The value of Arkansas’s 2017 crop is coming in at about $26 million, according to Wes Ward, director of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture.
Terris and Kim Matthews have sweet potatoes to thank not only for their livelihood but for their marriage. They met 18 years ago when Kim was a food merchandiser for grocery stores in Jackson, Tennessee, and contacted the Matthewses’ operation. Now, in addition to raising hundreds of acres of sweet potatoes, they are raising their two daughters, Jaylie, 16, and Tacie, 14, in the sweet potato patch.
Terris and Kim are so confident that their sweet-potato dynasty will continue that they have named one line of their potatoes “Fifth Generation.” The Fifth Generation logo includes a photograph of their daughters when the girls were much younger.
This has been a good season for Ridgeview. The harvest came in more than a week earlier than usual, thanks to an early spring and the right amount of rain.
Terris has been eating sweet potatoes all of his 48 years, and he still eats them three and four times a week. Sometimes, he will dig one out of the ground, dust it off and eat it raw. Terris prefers his sweet potatoes with butter and nothing else, but he enjoys the casseroles that include brown sugar, pecans, cinnamon, marshmallows or the other extra ingredients.
So whether you eat your sweet potatoes straight from the earth, baked with butter only, as sweet-potato fries or fancied up for the holidays, this is one home-grown food that is easy to find, easy to prepare, and gives you the satisfaction of supporting Arkansas farmers.