Photos: Mississippi Sweet Potato Council and Google Images
The Sweet Potato Capital of the World: Vardaman and The Sweet Potato
The sweet potato industry has transformed Vardaman beyond the wildest dreams of the early settlers. By "sweet potato industry" we mean the growing, harvesting, storing, marketing, and transportation of sweet potatoes. It also includes those businesses that grew up or changed to support the farm owners and workers and the town infrastructure needed to support this industry. There is probably not a single facet of Vardaman life that has not been touched and even transformed by this industry.
Sweet potatoes have been grown in the Vardaman area since the first settlers arrived. The Federal Agricultural Census of 1860, for example, lists the crops being produced by farms in Calhoun County, and the farms around the Ellzey area were growing sweet potatoes in significant numbers, scores of bushels of them on some farms. These potatoes were used on the farm for both human and animal food and were prized crops. As later sweet potato farmers would discover, much of the land in the area was greatly suited for sweet potato cultivation.
The beginning of the commercial sweet potato industry in Vardaman began with the arrival around the time of the first World War of farmers and other people from a relatively small area in Tennessee. The red circle on this map of the counties in the northwestern part of that state indicates where many of these "Tennesseans" came from. Two articles, linked below, describe the experiences of two of these families.
Some of these farmers looked around for something to supplement the usual crop of cotton and some had brought seed potatoes with them. Commercial sweet potato cultivation and marketing gradually grew from this relatively small beginning. Initially, the railroad through Vardaman was the main means of transporting this produce to the larger markets in the north and east. As larger trucks began to become available, and as county and state roads improved, the railroad lost favor to the trucking industry. As discussed in the railroad history elsewhere on this website, the shift by the sweet potato growers from the railroad to trucks was just one of the contributing factors to the decline of the railroad.
The sweet potato farmers hung on through the depression years of the 1930's and the World War II years. Improvements in equipment and techniques continued and helped farmers to increase their acreage of this labor-intensive crop and manage them with the same number of workers. Eventually, though, a shortage of workers became a significant problem as the need for workers outstripped the number available. A solution was found by the importing of Hispanic workers, primarily those from Mexico who had come to Texas. This led to changes in the town that the earlier settlers could not have imagined, as the article linked below discusses.
An annual Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival was begun in 1974 and has grown to be one of the largest such events in Mississippi. The Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival Committee kicks off the Festival with the Arts and Crafts Day which is always the First Saturday of November. The streets of downtown are crowded with exhibits and vendors of every description. This generates lots of excitement with crowds of 10,000 to 20,000 people. This picture was made in downtown Vardaman on the opening day of the 2007 Festival, and it is only 9:20 AM!
Some of the opening day's activities include a 5K Run/Walk, political speakers, famous BBQ Chicken at the Fire Station, the Sweet Potato Tasting Booth, and the Information Booth, which also provides Sweet Potato mementoes. There is a Sweet Potato Critter Contest, Sweet Potato Photography, Artwork, Writing contests, a Pie eating contest and live entertainment.
The week-long celebration of the harvest of the sweet potato crop continues on the following Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday, with the Sweet Potato King & Queen Beauty Pageants, ranging from new-born to high school seniors. Wednesday is Student Government Day, a day in which elected Senior Government Class Students take over the running of the town's government.
The Second Saturday closes the harvest celebration with an original sweet potato recipe contest and the Sweet Potato Banquet. That evening there is a presentation of awards and the presentation of the Mayors Cup to the winner of the cooking contest. Also at the Banquet, a hand-made sweet potato quilt, made by the Merry Hearts Club, is auctioned. This club is a group of elderly ladies -- our Mothers, Grandmothers and retired school teachers and friends -- who work on the stitching of the quilt all year long. The proceeds of the sale of this quilt is donated to local projects.
The Penick Family
Mr. J. R. Penick, Sr., spoke to the Mississippi Sweet Potato organization in Jackson in 1987. His speech included the story of his own family leaving their farm in northwest Tennessee and traveling to Vardaman. In Mr. Penick's words, they "looked around..."
Another of the families who came down from Tennessee is the Spencer family. Mr. Dewitt Spencer tells of his family's move and of his own experience in growing up on a farm that grew sweet potatoes.
Table of Contents
Growing and harvesting sweet potatoes was and still is a labor-intensive industry. Seed potatoes have to be planted in specially-prepared beds and the sprouts from these seed potatoes then transplanted to the growing field. The plants have to be tended while the potatoes are growing and then the rows have to be dug up and the potatoes gathered, processed, stored, marketed, and then transported to the buyers. All of these steps requires a large number of workers and the need in the Vardaman area became greater than the supply available. ...More...