Vardaman History Project - Sweet Potato Growers, The Penick Family

The Penick Family - Sweet Potato Growers

        Extracted from a speech by Mr. J. R. Penick, Sr. at the Sweet Potato Convention, Jackson MS, February 1987

I am a Tennessean by birth and a Mississippian by choice. I have been asked to tell you in part how a few farmers started with nothing in 1916 and built a sweet potato empire at Vardaman, Mississippi.

In 1915 a real estate agency came in possession of a large acreage of land near Vardaman and other nearby towns. Their main office being located in Martin, Tennessee, they put on a drive to sell that land to farmers near Martin, Tennessee and other nearby towns. Land was selling from $75.00 to $100.00 per acre in Martin but in Vardaman, at that time only from $10.00 to $25.00 per acre. A large number of farmers migrated to the promised land, however, some soon became dissatisfied and moved back to their native land and those that stayed got so poor they could not move back .

Penick - 4 Generations My father owned a 80-acre farm near Martin, Tennessee, and he swapped that farm to the real estate company for 240 acres near Vardaman--about half open land and about half in cut over timberland. We began to make ready to move to the promised land. We loaded the house furniture and farming tools in a box car to be delivered by rail, it was arranged for the women folks to travel by passenger train, and the men folks made ready to walk the livestock by dirt road. A pair of mules was pulling a covered wagon, loaded with supplies, feed for the livestock and food for three men and kindling wood for heating the skillet and coffee pot. The coffee pot held six cups of coffee, filled and emptied three times a day. Following our covered wagon, the last of the covered wagon days, were the rest of our livestock among which was the brood mare and her colt, the saddle horse and the buggy horse. We started each day at sunrise and traveled at the rate of three miles per hour until sunset, camping on the side of the road at night, and at the end of the seventh day we landed in the promised land. [Editor: It is approximately 210 miles from Martin TN to Vardaman]

Cotton was king at that time in Vardaman and we looked for a supplement crop and found that sweet potatoes grew well there. The Penick clan did not introduce sweet potatoes in the Vardaman Community as they were already growing there for home use in small patches but we did play an important part in establishing sweet potatoes as a commercial crop. The area around Vardaman which is known as the flat woods section grows good sweet potatoes and according to government test, grows the best flavored sweet potatoes in the United States.

We located some sweet potatoes in the spring of 1916 wintered in a man's cellar. We bought them for a dollar a bushel, twenty bushels, and bedded them in a barnyard manure, hot bed, 12 X 20, placing the manure four inches deep and covered it with two inches of old sawdust, placing the potatoes side by side, one potato deep, over the manure and covered them with five inches of old sawdust. A few other growers were doing likewise and the entire first crop in the community was probably thirty acres. The sprouting was good and we got enough plants to set five acres from the different drawings, Nancy Hall and Porto Rico varieties were the first used varieties. At this time, Centennials varieties are the most used but many varieties have been introduced among them is the Vardaman variety.

In 1919 a plant board was organized at Mississippi State College to assist farmers in controlling plant disease and insects that affect sweet potatoes. The first thing they did was to prohibit the use of barnyard manure hot beds, so we turned to fire heat for many years, then used electric cables for heating beds and now mostly open field beds covered with plastic which is cheap and effective if you get plenty of sunshine.

Sweet potatoes is a sure crop and has been profitable to the Vardaman community and the Penick family, who are still growing many acres. Sandy soil is preferred for growing sweet potatoes and the same tools used for preparing ground for cotton was initially used in preparing land for the growing of sweet potatoes as both were planted on elevated rows. The first sweet potato plants that were set, were set with a stick transplanter of elm variety, as they would not split, three to four feet long to fit the person, thinned at one end for easy penetration into the elevated rows, also a notch in the end to prevent bruising the plant stem.

8 Row Transplanter I reared my family with one of these stick transplanters which were used for several years until manufacturers began making one row mechanical transplanters which was a great help, But the one row transplanter soon gave way to the two row transplanter as did the stick transplanter had given way to the one row transplanter. Now two row tranplanters have given way to four row transplanters.

Our initial cultivation was similar to the cultivation of other crops and our first crops of sweet potatoes were harvested with a turning plow with a rolling cutter mounted to the beam for cutting the vines. With the right tilt and the right speed, you could uproot a hill of sweet potatoes and lay it on top of the row for picking.

During the growing season farmers began making storage houses to store a part of the crop for winter sales and for the keeping of some potatoes for seed for bedding for the next crop, preferably small ones. The first storage houses were mostly hewed logs and the cracks were filled with mud, any kind of building to keep the cold out and the heat inside. Potatoes were stored in bins, fifty to hundred bushels per bin. The temperature was held at 80 to 85 degrees for a few days until the skin was tough, which prevented skinning when handling and then held at 50 to 55 degrees, which is a dormant temperature for sweet potatoes, until sold. The first storage houses were filled and emptied by hand. Like the stick transplanter the small storage houses have given way to large storage houses that are filled with power lifts and emptied with power lifts.

JR Penick Sign The turning plow gave way to the mechanical harvester that up-roots the whole row and the chain conveyer sifted the dirt from the potatoes and the potatoes fell back to the ground for picking. In time the first harvester gave way to a riding harvester where workman picked and hampered potatoes as they moved along a conveyor and now that harvester is giving way to the two row harvester and the two acre and five acre crops are giving way to the 50, 100 and 200 acre crops.

Our first crops were sent to market by rail. Before the factories made any trucks, we marketed our sweet potatoes by rail. We would get the depot agent to spot us a box car on a switch track and several farmers would haul in a certain number of bushels, making a total of 500 bushels. We would bill the box car to a commission man in Chicago. When the box car arrived he would sell the potatoes, keep what money he wanted, and send the rest back. We sold our sweet potatoes this way until trucks were on the market. At that time, we began moving the sweet potatoes by truck to retail stores and wholesale houses.

Small potatoes were left, in most part, in the field until canneries began buying them for canning purposes and with the eighteen wheelers, potatoes can go longer distances.

The Spencer Family

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