10,000 Square Feet Of Sweet (Potato) Promise: Four New Greenhouses Dedicated

You might not think much about the origin of the sweet potatoes piled into your produce section – but for decades, CALS research has driven sweet potato quality improvements for growers across our state.

CALS administrators and partners cutting a red ribbon to the new sweetpotato greenhouses at NC State
CALS administrators and partners cut the ribbon on the new sweetpotato greenhouses.

On May 3, fans of the sweetpotato (that’s not a typo – outside the grocery store, the correct scientific term is one word, not two) have one more reason to cheer: CALS faculty, staff, stakeholders and partners gathered to dedicate four new sweetpotato greenhouses at the Horticulture Field Labs.

The 10,000 square feet of growing space are allotted for the annual production of certified elite sweetpotato plants, said Eric Davis, head of the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology. That’s important, because starting with sweetpotato plants certified to be disease-free and true-to-type has enormous benefits for growers: increased yields, better sweetpotato quality and reduced pesticide use.

Vaulted ceilings in the new greenhouse
The new greenhouses will provide 10,000 square feet of much-needed growing space.

The new greenhouses are the latest project in a partnership dating back to the 1990s, when NC State scientists and North Carolina sweetpotato growers developed the Micropropagation and Repository Unit (MPRU) as a source of certified clean sweetpotato plants for our state’s farmers.

With success came challenges: The annual production of elite certified sweetpotato plants by the MPRU has more than quadrupled to meet the steadily increasing demand by growers. A lack of sufficient certified greenhouse space at NC State for elite plant production created a significant bottleneck in annual production.

We caught up with Davis to learn more.

Why are the new greenhouses important?

A bag of sweet potato chips
Value-added products like chips are another key use for the crops of North Carolina growers.

North Carolina is number one in sweetpotato production in the country. North Carolina growers now have substantial export markets, especially in Europe. The production of exceptional sweetpotato cultivars by the NC State sweetpotato breeding program, combined with certified elite plant production through the MPRU, has made our state a world leader in sweetpotato production.

What will they be used for?

The new greenhouses will be dedicated to the production of elite certified sweetpotato plants from the MPRU. The plants originate from lab tissue culture and are certified to be disease-free and true-to-type by the NC Crop Improvement Association. The elite plants are purchased every year by members of the NC Certified Sweetpotato Seed Growers Association to be increased in their certified facilities to provide clean planting stock for North Carolina sweetpotato growers.

What kind of impact will the greenhouses have on North Carolina sweetpotato production?

The production of elite certified plants by the MPRU has been hampered by limited greenhouse space on campus. The new greenhouses will allow the MPRU to expand and accelerate elite plant production up to twice the current capacity.

Who helped make this project possible?

A timely and substantial grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation got the project off the ground. The NC Certified Sweetpotato Seed Growers Association matched a significant financial investment in a pledge with the CALS Ag Foundation to provide for the full project. Carolina Greenhouses out of Kinston was hired to build the new greenhouses and did an outstanding job.

Unexpected project costs associated with utilities infrastructure threatened to derail the project, but CALS came to the rescue with the funding to keep the project on track. Funding from the National Clean Plant Network, the NC State Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology and the MPRU provided the plant grow light systems and back-up generator to complete the project, and I led the construction project.

Celebration at the CALS greenhouses

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.