Harvey Williams smiled as he loaded the last crate of sweet potatoes into the bed of his pickup truck.

Harvey Williams smiled as he loaded the last crate of sweet potatoes into the bed of his pickup truck.

Grown at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, the second-generation Beauregard sweet potatoes are special, he said. Having access to them makes raising his crop a lot easier because he no longer has to travel to other states to get the seed potatoes he needs.

“It’s something I’ve wanted to see for a long time,” Williams said, explaining that he will use the sweet potatoes to grow plants so that he can improve the grade of sweet potatoes on his Phillips County farm. “The better your plants are, the better the yield.”

Sweet potatoes do not grow from seeds planted in the ground, but from plants or sprouts, called slips. For years, Arkansas sweet potato growers had relied on neighboring states for slips. Many Arkansas producers purchased them from Arkansas slip producers who get their seed potatoes from Louisiana, North Carolina or Mississippi.

“Market demand for sweet potatoes in Arkansas and other states has continually increased the need for high quality, disease-free planting materials (slips),” said Obadiah Njue, UAPB Cooperative Extension Program horticulture specialist.

Sweet potatoes are susceptible to viruses that accumulate with each planting cycle or generation, leading to a decline in the variety. This decline affects the yield and quality — changes in skin color, flesh color and shape — thus affecting the marketability of the crop.

“Availability and cost of the high quality, disease-free planting materials has been a major constraint in the production of sweet potatoes in Arkansas,” Njue said.

To address this challenge, UAPB’s Sweet potato Foundation Seed Program has successfully developed the first virus-free tested plants ready for planting in the field in 2012. These plants will produce generation one (G1) sweet potato roots. G1 seed potatoes will be made available to Arkansas slip producers in 2013.

“We are very pleased with this achievement, which will certainly impact the sweet potato production in Arkansas in a very positive way,” Njue said.

UAPB scientists Muthusamy Manoharan, associate professor, and Sathish Ponniah, plant breeder and Extension associate, have successfully produced virus-free sweet potato plants and transferred them to the UAPB greenhouse. The plants have been multiplied and are ready for planting in the field. UAPB plans to plant 2 acres of generation-zero sweet potato slips in 2012 and will increase acreage in the coming years.

Farmer Harvey Williams said he thinks the program is good and could be beneficial to farmers who are growing sweet potatoes, not only in this state, but in other states as well.

“If Arkansas is going to be a sweet potato-growing state, then the university needs to be involved in growing seed potatoes and possibly develop its own varieties,” Williams said.