Situated on 620 acres in northeast Mississippi lies the MAFES Pontotoc Ridge-Flatwoods Branch Experiment Station. Just 30 miles to the south is the sweet potato capital of the world in Vardaman, Mississippi. That is one of the reasons that the Pontotoc Branch is one of six National Clean Plant Network centers focused on sweet potatoes in the nation, a program through USDA-APHIS. Sweet potatoes are different than other row crops as they are propagated vegetatively. Farmers plant high-quality roots in the ground to produce vines which are cut into planting material, known as slips. These slips are then transplanted to produce sweet potatoes. Essentially, farmers grow two crops to harvest sweet potatoes, making the crop labor-intensive and expensive to produce.
As a sweet potato clean plant center, the station ensures farmers have access to virus-tested slips for planting. Begun in the 1960s, the foundation seed or clean seed program at the station began with "hill selection of roots" and transitioned to "virus-testing of plants" to minimize mutations and cultivar decline in sweet potato. Management of the clean foundation seed program at the Pontotoc station has evolved over time from providing a small supply of foundation seed stock to a few growers, to suppling clean plant material to six commercial farming operations that propagate slips in greenhouses to sell to farmers as well as plant in their own fields. The current goal at the station is to focus on scientific research to maintain "seed quality" at all stages of the clean foundation seed program including the lab, greenhouse, field, and storage environments. This will help stakeholders to "start clean - stay clean" for several seed generations, which will help farmers improve their bottom line.
Dr. Lorin Harvey, assistant professor at the Pontotoc Station explained the importance of state-propagated sweet potatoes.
"The sweet potato foundation seed program acts as a source of biosecurity for Mississippi's sweet potato industry by providing a source of clean planting materials from within the state, reducing the transfer of seed from outside sources," Harvey said. "This ensures that infectious diseases and invasive pests do not arrive in the state through sweet potatoes."
The Pontotoc station is the only MAFES branch station with research focused on sweet potatoes, however, the team also works in other crops, including corn, soybean, cotton, and specialty crops including sesame and switchgrass. The station collaborates with other university scientists, industry partners, and state and federal agencies to address issues and concerns of stakeholders involved with production agriculture. Systems research includes crop varieties, fertilizer, weed control, irrigation and non-irrigation, and cover crops in both traditional and organic crop production.
The station participates in the MAFES Official Variety Trials program and conducts research on non-irrigated crop production in north Mississippi. Dr. Mark Shankle, research professor at the Pontotoc Station explained the research focused on north Mississippi production environments.
"Currently, about 7 to 10% of producers in the northern part of the state irrigate. This is because the water table in north Mississippi is much deeper than what is found in the Delta, so it can be very costly for a producer to drill a well for irrigation," Shankle said. "Our research is designed to assist those who farm in a dry-land production environment."
The team at the station are involved in the community, and the station itself is like a community as each member of the team works toward a common goal.
"We all have different jobs but when it's time to plant, it's all hands-on deck," said Joshua Wilkinson, a new research associate who has only been on the job for a month.
For Wilkinson, an Ocean Springs native, the research is the best part of the job.
"I really like the applied research that we do on the farm," Wilkinson said. "Taking a hypothesis, working it out in the field, and developing new methodologies that producers can implement is exciting."
Wilkinson, who earned a bachelor's degree in biology and a master's degree in botany from the University of Southern Mississippi, primarily works in the lab.
Other team members also work in the lab, the field, and the greenhouse.
Callie Morris, a Paris, Tennessee native, earned her master's in horticulture from Mississippi State. She worked in landscape during high school and received a bachelor's degree in landscape management from the University of Tennessee at Martin. The mom of two is currently working on her Ph.D. in agronomy.
"The farm provides an opportunity to do something different every day," Morris said. "Some days we work in the field, others in the greenhouse, in the lab, or in the office writing proposals and publications."
Two of the team left careers in furniture for life on the farm. Samuel Lane Jaggers and Jackie Biffle, both natives of Thaxton, also enjoy the diversity of the work. Jaggers has been at the farm for 14 years while Biffle is a relative newcomer with 1.5 years under his belt. Both enjoy helping farmers figure out ways to grow better crops.
Trevor Garrett, the veteran member of the team has been at the farm for 21 years and is the longest serving research associate at the station.
A native of Pinedale, Garrett received his bachelor's degree from MSU in agricultural engineering technology and business. Shortly after graduating, his grandmother saw the job advertised in a local newspaper and told him to apply. Growing up in agriculture, Garrett said, "it's as close to farming as you can get and still draw a steady paycheck."
The only native of Pontotoc, Mark Hall has worked at the station since high school. After obtaining his bachelor's degree in agronomy, he was hired as a research associate. Hall grew up in farming and enjoys the opportunity to provide information to local growers. Hall is working on his master's in agronomy
The station is led by Drs. Mark Shankle and Lorin Harvey, both MAFES scientists in the Department of Plant and Soil Sciences. Shankle has been with the station for 23 years and pioneered the transition of the sweet potato foundation seed program. Harvey, a relative newcomer at 1.5 years, is an assistant professor and extension sweet potato specialist. He is conducting applied research on plant breeding to develop new sweet potato varieties.
The team employs three high school students during the summer, who have the opportunity to learn about agricultural research.
The Pontotoc Ridge-Flatwoods Branch Experiment Station facilities include five greenhouses, a state-of-the-art laboratory, manicured landscape, and flourishing crops. As travelers wind north and south along Highway 15, the station is the front door to Mississippi State and the Mississippi Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station for the surrounding community.
And while the facilities are top-notch, Shankle said it's the people at the Pontotoc Ridge-Flatwoods Branch Experiment Station who make the station comfortable for all who visit.
"The teamwork and camaraderie make our station thrive," he said.