Batts brings affinity for sweet potatoes

New ag agent has Wilson County roots

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If it’s edible and not a row crop, that would be Tommy Batts’ bailiwick.

Batts, a commercial horticulture agent, is the newest member of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County. His focus will be on watermelons, strawberries, peppers, tomatoes, general vegetables, sweet potatoes and the Wilson Farmers Market.

A 2013 graduate of North Carolina State University with a bachelor of science in horticulture science and a minor in crop science, Batts, 25, also has a master’s degree from Louisiana State University in agronomy with an emphasis on wheat science dealing with herbicides in sweet potatoes.

Batts, who is the son of Susan Boswell Batts and Roger Batts, of Wilson, has extended Wilson County roots in agriculture.

The Wendell resident was working on his doctorate in wheat science, dealing with cover crops in between cabbage production, when he found out about the opening in Wilson.

“I spent two years at Louisiana and then moved to Florida for a year and a half to work on a Ph.D and when this job came open I thought this was a chance to move home and do what I love, so I’m going to take it,” Batts said.

“I’m excited to be here. I’m glad to be home,” Batts said. “I’m excited to work with the growers and understand what their problems are.”

Batts brings a strong knowledge of sweet potatoes to the county.

I feel I have a good working experience and knowledge of sweet potatoes,” he said.

Sweet potatoes earned $44.3 million for the county in 2016, the second-highest of local agricultural products. North Carolina leads the nation in sweet potato production.

“Sweet potatoes make up about 15 percent of the acreage here in the county, but they make up about a quarter of the farm sales,” he said.

Wilson had 10,000 acres of sweet potatoes in 2016, which was a 14 percent increase over the previous year.

“I just think the sandy soils are great for it,” Batts said. “All this sandy loam soil around here is great for growing potatoes. It doesn’t hold water, so barring heavy rains, you don’t have issues with rot like, let’s say, down in Plymouth where you have the black land, mud soils down there.”

North Carolina is No. 1 in sweet potato production.

After the 2014 end of the tobacco buyout, or the Tobacco Transition Payment Program, many North Carolina farmers went straight into sweet potatoes.

“Everybody went to sweet potatoes because you can use the same equipment,” Batts said. “You can grow them on the same row spacings so you don’t have to change your transplanters and you transplant them, so you don’t have to worry about seeding them. They utilize a lot of the old tobacco equipment to plant the sweet potatoes, especially if the people are getting out of tobacco, they go into sweet potatoes.

It’s not a cheap one to go to, but it’s a possibility.”

Sweet potato production has high input costs, but it’s also a high-output crop.

“Labor is the big issue,” Batts said. “You have to have a crew to set. In this day and age with Roundup-resistant pigweed, you have got to have a crew to go in there and hand-weed because there are not a lot of herbicide options for the crop. Then on the tail end, you have harvesting and packing as well as any other crop.”

Sweet potatoes are a resilient crop that holds a long time and can be shipped all over the United States and the world.

Potatoes are put in a curing barn at 80 or 90 degrees for five days with low humidity and it sets the skin so it will last longer.

“That allows the potato to survive longer in storage,” Batts said.

It’s common for a farmer to sell last year’s sweet potatoes before the current year’s crop is dug, which happens in September.

Batts’ appreciation for the storage root includes being part of his appetite.

“They’re great,” Batts said. “When I was little, my grandmother and my mother used to make sweet potatoes. They’d mash them up and put butter and cinnamon in them and I would eat those before I would eat regular mashed potatoes. I’ve always enjoyed sweet potatoes. It’s also one of the things that supports my home economy very much so, so that’s why I enjoy eating sweet potatoes.”

Sweet potatoes are healthy, too.

“It’s got a lot of beta carotene in it, which is a precursor to Vitamin A, and that helps eyesight. That’s why it’s orange, because of the beta carotene. It’s the same reason carrots are orange.,” Batts said. “It does have starches in it, but it’s not as starchy as Irish potatoes.”

As long as there is a market for them, sweet potatoes will be part of the agricultural landscape in Wilson.

“I think they will be around here in Wilson County for a long time because we do grow a lot and we do grow quality sweet potatoes,” Batts said.

To reach Batts, call 252-237-0111 or send him an email at tmbatts@ncsu.edu.

dwilson@wilsontimes.com | 265-7818