Harvest time for sweet potatoes nears; Merced top-producing county

Those sweet little tubers that grace most folks' Thanksgiving table got a bit of a late start this year, but the sweet potato crop in the north county is looking good.

The crop in the state is expected to be good, and although prices are down a bit at the moment, growers expect the price to pick up once harvest begins.

Cool, wet weather that hung around until June was a problem and worsened one of the scourges of growers everywhere -- weeds.

"Sweet potatoes are known as a health food, so we don't use a lot of spraying," said Nathan Mininger, an Atwater sweet potato grower. "A good share of our weed control is the good old hula hoe."

Mininger said every time his acreage was hoed to a weedless state this year, another growth of weeds would take over four or five days later.

The sweet potato is a tropical plant, so it doesn't like the cooler weather, Mininger said. "The big heat spell did a good job of getting the plants caught up," he said.

In 2009, more than 16,000 acres of sweet potatoes were grown in the county, and their value was almost $172,000,000, according to the Merced County agricultural commissioner's office.

Sweet potatoes are started in the spring in hot beds from roots that were stored over the winter. The plants are transplanted into the fields in May and June in the sandy soil of the Atwater and Livingston areas. Mininger said he will start harvesting his tubers in about two weeks.

"We harvest through August for the early market," Mininger said. "Then in September and October, we harvest the ones that will go into storage."

No. 1 grower in U.S.

California as a whole is the second-largest producer of sweet potatoes in the United States, and Merced County is the No. 1 sweet potato-producing county in the country. About 80 percent of the state's production is located in the county, mostly because of a long growing season, good irrigation and sandy soil.

The nutritive value of sweet potatoes is very high. They are a good source of complex carbohydrates; of calcium, iron, and other minerals; and of vitamins, especially vitamin A and beta-carotene.

Mininger grows six varieties of potatoes, and said some are better for baking and some are better for other uses.

"I like to barbecue them," Mininger said. "A little olive oil, some seasoning and just throw them on the grill like a hamburger. They're delicious."