Clemson Extension specialist Tony Melton shows a 5-pound sweet potato to attendees of the Sept. 13 field day at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center.

Clemson Extension specialist Tony Melton shows a five-pound sweet potato to attendees of the Sept. 13 field day at the Pee Dee Research and Education Center.
Image Credit: Jonathan Veit / Clemson University

FLORENCE — Massive, five-pound sweet potatoes being grown at the Clemson University Pee Dee Research and Education Center in Florence could give South Carolina farmers an edge in potato production for canneries.

Clemson Extension specialist Tony Melton is testing the fertility needed to grow sweet potatoes five times the size of the average one-pound potato grown in South Carolina. He’s also testing control methods for nematodes, which can destroy sweet potatoes, and is growing on a 120-day maturity schedule, rather than the current 90 days.

“We’re trying to get a higher yield for our growers and a better potato for our cannery, which won’t lose as much in peeling with these huge potatoes,” Melton said.

The result will be greater profits for all involved.

The sweet potato project is part of a new 20-acre research plot on the Pee Dee REC focused on high-value specialty vegetable production. Specialty vegetables provide opportunity for row-crop farmers looking to sell to local markets where prices are less subject to global competition, and they’re particularly attractive to emerging farmers because they require less capital investment than row-crop farming. These vegetables can be grown year round to be sold at local farmers’ markets, grocery stores, restaurants and the cannery in Effingham.

“We are hoping to encourage a return to vegetable farming in the Pee Dee to give producers alternatives to commodity crops like corn, to better utilize the previous tobacco lands that are still underutilized in many cases, and to encourage new and beginning farmers to get started with less land- and equipment-intensive crops,” said Matt Smith, director of the Pee Dee Research and Education Center.

As part of that project, Melton also is working to breed a new butterbean variety that can be grown during the summer. Most butterbean plants only produce during the cooler spring and fall seasons. Melton’s 20-acre plot also includes tests on various methods of irrigation and pest control. Five acres are devoted to organic growing practices, as well.

Melton’s work was on display during the recent field day at Pee Dee REC, which also opened its newly renovated John B. Pitner Center. The $7 million renovation includes a stronger network for data transfer, state-of-the-art equipment, more collaborative space and new labs for the Advanced Plant Technology program.

Nearly 300 farmers and other attendees gathered for the field day to learn tips on growing cotton, soybeans, corn, grain sorghum and other crops. During the field day, scientists with Clemson, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided research-based tips on reducing nitrogen applications without affecting yield and planting cover crops to improve soil health and reduce input costs. Clemson and USDA scientists also updated attendees on new crop varieties under development with tolerance to drought, disease and pests, and offered growers a look at trees and grasses that can be grown for conversion into liquid biofuels.

Dillon County farmer Keith Allen said he relies greatly on the Pee Dee REC’s variety trials that inform growers which crop varieties perform best in South Carolina’s distinct climate and soil types.

“We farmers just can’t do that kind of research,” he said.