NC State Extension Publications

Organic Sweetpotato Production Summary

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  • Position sweetpotato in a rotation of crops to minimize weed competition and pest and disease losses.
  • Choose sweetpotato varieties that perform well in your area and fit target market.
  • Test soil for fertility requirements and nematode presence.
  • Use good implement sanitation practices to limit the spread of diseases and nematodes among fields.
  • Purchase disease-free seed or slips from a certified sweetpotato seed producer.
  • Avoid planting too early.
  • Manage weeds appropriately at critical periods in sweetpotato growth and storage root initiation.
  • Minimize handling damage when harvesting to limit post-harvest disease and unmarketable roots.
  • Use recommended root-curing conditions.


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North Carolina is the largest producer of sweetpotato in the US, producing over 50% of the crop nationwide. Organic production of sweetpotato is an important part of several growers’ businesses; however, the percentage of acreage dedicated to organic sweetpotato versus conventional production is relatively low. There appears to be room to grow the organic sweetpotato sector of the market. Although sweetpotato has pest challenges, there seems to be less disease and insect pest concerns than many other vegetable crops. Weed control can be one of the most challenging pest control aspects when growing organic sweetpotato, especially Palmer amaranth and nutsedge weeds.

Variety Selection

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Variety selection is critical for any crop one may grow because it not only needs to meet production criteria but also must meet market demands. Sweetpotato is no exception and pest management considerations are a very important criterion, especially when considering organic production. Pest control methods are more limited when growing a crop organically, and thus consideration of pest resistance or susceptibility is of the utmost importance. Agronomic characteristics like yield, shape (including size and uniformity), production time in the field, and plant production are also very important. Another consideration for producers is storability; varieties with shorter shelf life will need to be sold sooner, and this may impact producers’ marketing flexibility. Finally, producers should consider market preference for color. If one can grow a high-yielding sweetpotato variety that has a white flesh and skin but cannot sell it because the market demands a variety with orange flesh and red skin, it does the producer no good. Selecting a variety that is marketable, high yielding, high quality, and profitable is key.

Table 8.1 provides organic sweetpotato producers with a choice of varieties and key characteristics and pest control considerations. Covington is the most-grown sweetpotato variety in North Carolina and accounts for about 90% of the state’s production. It is grown conventionally and organically. Some key reasons Covington is the top variety grown in the state is that it is highly adapted to production throughout the state. It has high yields (though not the highest), its roots are somewhat short, and the pack out of this variety is very high. In other words, few culls or misshapen roots are produced, so most of the sweetpotatoes harvested can be sold. They can also be stored for a long period of time (up to 12 months), as long as proper curing and storage conditions are maintained. Typical skin color is a light rose and the flesh is orange, which is what most markets expect and often demand.

Covington is a later plant producer and only produces an average number of plants. Its disease package is good; however, it is susceptible to insects, especially the wireworm diabrotica systena flea beetle complex (WDS). Wireworms are the larval stage of click beetles (Coleoptera: Elateridae) and can have single- or multi-year periods as immatures in the soil. Diabrotica, commonly known as striped or spotted cucumber beetles (Coleoptera: Chrysomelidae), are annual pests that lay eggs around the base of sweetpotato, and, in turn, have larvae that move into the soil and damage roots. Systena flea beetles are annual pests that, during the larval stage, cause serpentine channeling on the root surface. These pests are a major challenge in sweetpotato production. Crop rotation remains the key strategy to minimize sweetpotato injury from soilborne pests. One general management tool is to avoid rotating sweetpotato into fields that have had corn or fallow grass pasture as the previous crop. These crops can elevate the risk of damage from wireworm larvae that favor grasses and have a multi-year larval life stage.

Some other commonly grown sweetpotato varieties are Beauregard and Orleans, both of which are high yielding. Orleans is very similar to Beauregard but tends to produce less misshaped roots. Like Covington, Beauregard and Orleans have a light rose skin and orange flesh. Both Beauregard and Orleans are early and prolific plant producers. Unlike Covington, these varieties are susceptible to root-knot nematode and flea beetle. Both Beauregard and Orleans produce very smooth skins and cure and store well.

Averre is a relatively new variety released by North Carolina State University in 2018. It has very high yields, a short growing season, and is an early and high production plant producer. It has similar light rose skin color and orange flesh to Covington and Beauregard. It is susceptible to root-knot nematode, WDS complex, and flea beetle, and has a relatively short storage life. It should be sold by Christmas time.

Bayou Belle was developed for processing French fries and has very high yields, a short growing season before roots are ready for harvest, and has high plant production in which plants are ready early. The skin color of Bayou Belle is red and its flesh color is orange. It is not a mainstream fresh market variety but nonetheless has very good eating quality. The roots it produces are variable in shape. Bayou Belle is resistant to fusarium and moderately resistant to root-knot nematode. It is susceptible to the WDS complex and flea beetle.

Red-skin-colored sweetpotato is what a substantial number of smaller acreage sweetpotato growers produce. The variety they often produce organically is Carolina Ruby, and clientele have found this variety to have excellent culinary characteristics. Carolina Ruby has high yield and is ready for harvest early in the production season. It has very high plant production and plants are produced early in the season. It has a dark red skin and orange flesh. Carolina Ruby is susceptible to root-knot nematode, the WDS complex, and flea beetle. The roots of this variety do tend to crack if moisture conditions fluctuate.

There are only two varieties listed in table 8.1 that have moderate resistance to the WDS complex with good resistance to fusarium and root-knot nematode. One variety is Murasaki-29, which is a variety released by the Louisiana State University Experiment Station and has a purple skin and white flesh. Yields are average; it is ready for harvest late in the season, but has very high, early plant production. Monaco is a clone developed by NC State University released in 2021 that is well-suited for organic production due to its having very good resistance to many diseases and insects. As compared with Murasaki-29, it has a dark rose skin and orange flesh. Monaco has a dense upright growth habit which allows for longer cultivation and helps suppress weeds within the row. Although Monaco has good pest resistance, several yield studies have indicated that it has lower average yields than other commercial varieties. It has also had a shorter shelf life when packed on large packing lines and may be better suited to smaller dry packing facilities. Another white-flesh, white-skinned variety to consider is Bonita. Bonita has a white skin and cream flesh and produces average yields. It has early, high plant production but is not ready to harvest until mid-to-late season. It has resistance to fusarium and root-knot nematode but is susceptible to the WDS complex.

Evangeline is a variety with dark rose skin and orange flesh that produces high yields. Its plant production is average and can be problematic if the roots are covered too deep by soil during the bedding operation. Evangeline produces plants mid-to-late season. It is resistant to many of the key diseases but is susceptible to the key insect pests. Air cracking has been observed when harvested on cold mornings late in the harvest season.

Other older varieties that are produced on a more limited basis are Georgia Red, Jewel, and Porto Rico, all of which still have a following by some clientele. Being older varieties, they are susceptible to key diseases: fusarium, southern root-knot nematode (though Jewel is resistant), and Streptomyces soil rot, as well as the key insect pests that affect sweetpotato. These varieties all have orange flesh; Jewel has orange skin, Georgia Red has a red skin as its name suggests, and Porto Rico has a light orange skin. All of these varieties have below average yields and produce high amounts of plants early. Jewel is ready to harvest mid-season, while roots from Georgia Red and Porto Rico are produced late in the season. However, all three of these varieties have tested resistant to guava root-knot nematode. Jewel is resistant to both SRKN and GRKN and still performs well in soils where there is no history of Streptomyces soil rot.

Table 8.1 Sweetpotato variety agronomic and insect pest and disease resistance characteristics
Variety Yield [1] Days to Harvest [2] Plant Production [3] Color Pest Resistance / Susceptibility [5]
Flesh [4] Skin Fus SRKN Strep WDS Flea Beetle
Averre VH E E-H O Light Rose R S MR S S
Bayou Belle VH E E-H O Red R MR MR S S
Beauregard H E E-H O Light Rose R S MR S S
Bonita A M-L E-H W Cream MR R MR S S
Carolina Ruby H E E-VH O Dark Red R S MR S S
Covington H M L-A O Light Rose R R MR S MS
Evangeline H M ML-A O Dark Rose R R MR S S
Georgia Red BA L E-H O Red S MS S S S
Jewel A M E-H O Orange R R S S S
Murasaki-29 A L E-VH W Purple R R MR MR MR
NC04-531 BA L M-H O Dark Rose R R MR MR MR
Orleans H E EM-H O Light Rose R S MR S S
Porto Rico BA L E-VH O Light Orange S MS S S S

[1] Yield: VH = Very High, H = High, A = Average, BA = Below Average.

[2] Days to Harvest: E = Early (~90–100 days after planting, DAP), M = Mid-Season (~101–115 days after planting, DAP), L = Late Season (~ > 115 days after planting, DAP).

[3] Plant Production: E = Early, M = Middle, L = Late; VH = Very High Plant Production, H = High Plant Production, A = Average Plant Production.

[4] Color Flesh: O = Orange, W = White.

[5] Disease and Insect Ratings: Fus = Fusarium wilt (Fusarium oxysporum), SRKN = Southern root-knot nematode (Meloidogyne incognita), Strep = Streptomyces soil rot or Po ipomoea), WDS = Wireworm Diabrotica Systena Complex (wireworms, Diabrotica -cucumber beetles, Systena -flea beetles, Sweetpotato flea beetle (Chaetocnema confinis) (R = Resistance, MR = Moderate Resistance, S = Susceptible, MS = Moderate Susceptibility).

Seed or Plant Considerations

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Plants should be obtained from producers who produce and sell certified sweetpotato seed. This provides assurance that the plants are true to type and are the highest quality plants or seed roots. The roots are inspected by the North Carolina Crop Improvement Association to minimize pest incidence, especially diseases such as virus incidence in the G0 plants, which are purchased annually by Certified Sweetpotato Producers. Plants are maintained by the Micropropagation Center and Repository (MPUR) in tissue culture in order to reduce the occurrence of mutations and are tested each year for viruses. The Certified Sweetpotato Seed Producers obtain new planting stock every year that have been tested for diseases by the MPUR located on the campus of North Carolina State University. When obtaining certified sweetpotato plants each year, the highest quality planting stock is maintained in the industry.

Currently, there is only one seed producer offering several organic sweetpotato varieties for sale: Jones Family Farms, located in Bailey, North Carolina.

Planting Date

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Most commercial sweetpotato is planted in late May and completion of planting is targeted by the end of June. Limited planting is sometimes made in late April; however, plants must be produced in the greenhouse in order to achieve this early plant date. An early plant date with sweetpotato is not necessarily advantageous as sweetpotato is a tropical-season plant that is grown in the temperate climate of North Carolina. In other words, sweetpotato is a warm season crop and thrives when temperatures are near 90°F during the day and in the upper 60s or 70s at night. These temperatures are more common from June through September. Little advantage in growth and shortening the length of season will be gained if cold weather persists into mid-May; some growers plant in early July. A successful crop can be obtained if the variety selected has a relatively short growing season and growing conditions are favorable. On average, 50% of sweetpotato crop is planted by June 10, with harvest beginning as early as late August and continuing through October.

Row Spacing and Plant Population

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Sweetpotato between-row spacing depends on the machinery that a grower has, especially when producing another transplanted crop (often tobacco). Thus, spacing between rows will range as close as 36 inches to as much as 48 inches. Most commercial sweetpotato growers use 42- or 44-inch spacings between rows. Narrower row-spacing potentially results in higher yield due to better land use than wider between-row spacing. Narrower between-row spacing provides the added benefit of covering the row middles with vegetation and results in better weed control.

In-row plant spacing can vary from 8 to 14 inches; closer in-row spacing allows for more efficient production. Also, placing plants closer together may delay root sizing due to increased competition between plants. Planting further apart in-row helps to promote storage roots sizing, thus earliness or less time is needed in the field. Placement of plants in the row may be a way to manage root sizing so that harvest times vary. Close in-row spacing may also aid in weed control by out-competing weeds and reducing light penetration so weed seeds do not germinate. Generally, plant populations per acre vary between 12,500 and 15,000 when in-row spacing is 12 and 10 inches, respectively, and between-row spacing is 42 inches. Increasing plant populations results in more plant costs and allowance should be made so that roots attain adequate size, thereby maximizing yields and realizing more profits.

Nutrition Considerations

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Very limited research has been conducted on managing fertilizer practices for organic production of sweetpotato. Rather, most work has emphasized the use of synthetic fertilizers for conventional sweetpotato production. For Covington, approximately 80 pounds per acre N is typically applied in two separate applications. For organic sweetpotato production, nutrition derived from slower-release fertilizers like poultry litter may require different fertilizer application considerations both in the current growing season and the subsequent growing year. Cover crops like clover or hairy vetch can be used to contribute nitrogen as well. Fortunately, most soils in North Carolina contain plenty of phosphorus. Even though this is the case, about 50 pounds per acre is routinely applied to a conventionally grown crop. Potassium is typically available in most North Carolina soils as well, but it is common practice for growers to apply 150 to 200 pounds per acre of potash for the growing season. This section will be updated with more detailed information as further research is conducted on fertilization and the nutrition aspects of growing organic sweetpotato.

Weed Management

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Growers rank weed control as the number one barrier in production of organically produced crops. Weed competition during storage root initiation (first three to four weeks after transplanting), and the growth stage of sweetpotato in which storage roots size up, directly impact the number of storage roots produced per plant, the size of each storage root at harvest, and the resulting yield and quality (Gajanayake et al. 2013, 2014, 2015; Meyers et al. 2014; Pardales and Yamauchi 2003; Villordon et al. 2012). Control of all weeds is difficult and is often not achievable. A goal of weed control in organically produced sweetpotato is to increase crop competitiveness while also reducing weed competition to an acceptable level. To meet this goal, growers should properly transplant a sweetpotato cultivar with a bunch-type growth habit that can reach row closure sooner, maintain fertility programs such that sweetpotato growth is enhanced, and maximize crop competition with weeds (Harrison and Jackson 2011). Generally, sweetpotato are grown on 9-to-12-inch in-row spacing. Sweetpotato has been shown to be more competitive with Palmer amaranth when grown on 6-inch in-row spacing (S.C. Smith, unpublished data); therefore, it might be beneficial to plant sweetpotato at 6-inch in-row spacing in fields with a high population of Palmer amaranth. Fields with high weed populations should also be planted when temperature is optimum for sweetpotato growth, which is usually during the later portion of the planting season. In addition, growers must start with a weed-free field at transplanting and then control weeds for at least six weeks (around sweetpotato canopy closure) after transplanting. Weeds that emerge after six weeks after transplanting do not normally reduce yield or quality of sweetpotato. However, controlling weeds from six weeks to harvest is beneficial as it prevents weed seed being added to the weed seed bank in the soil, which will be the source of future weeds. In North Carolina, cultivation and hand removal are the two most important weed control strategies employed in organic sweetpotato (K.M. Jennings, personal communication). Shallow cultivation should begin as soon as the crop is established (usually 10 to 14 days after transplanting). For most organic fields in North Carolina, two to three cultivations will be necessary to control most of the weed populations. Weeds that escape will need to be hand-removed before they reach a large size to not only reduce competition with the crop but to also avoid uprooting the crop. If weeds reach several feet in height, weeds should be cut at the soil surface to avoid uprooting the crop. Weeds that extend above the sweetpotato canopy can be mowed, however, this provides limited control. Palmer amaranth mowed above the canopy branches below the cut and results in a dense canopy just above the sweetpotato canopy (Meyers et al. 2017).

Specific Weeds

Palmer amaranth

Palmer amaranth is the worst weed in organically produced sweetpotato in North Carolina because it is able to germinate quickly (within one day) under favorable conditions, grow at a rate of 2 to 5 inches per day, and has the potential across many environmental conditions to grow over 10 feet tall and produce many seeds (a single female Palmer amaranth can produce over 500,000 seeds). Because of these characteristics, it easily competes against the crop for water, nutrients, and light. It can produce viable seeds 30 days after germinating (K.M. Jennings unpublished data; Legleiter and Johnson 2013).

Control of Palmer amaranth must begin early in the season in sweetpotato, as approximately 10% total yield loss can occur if this weed is present during the first three weeks after transplanting. As Palmer amaranth remains in the crop past three weeks after transplanting, total yield loss can increase to 70% and number one grade yield loss can reach 90% (Smith et al. 2017). Season-long competition of Palmer amaranth at densities of one to 13 plants per 6.6 feet of sweetpotato row will likely result in a 35 to 80% reduction in marketable sweetpotato yield (Meyers et al. 2010). Pigweed species spp. like Palmer amaranth should also be removed from fields to prevent reestablishment and seed production. Palmer amaranth has the ability to re-root along the stem if left in the field (L.M. Sosnoskie, University of Georgia, unpublished data).

Yellow Nutsedge

In North Carolina, yellow nutsedge is among the most troublesome weeds affecting organically produced sweetpotato (Meyers and Shankle 2015b; Webster 2014; S.C. Smith and L.D. Moore, unpublished data). Yellow and purple nutsedge are perennial weeds that are spread by underground vegetative structures (rhizomes and tubers (Meyers and Shankle 2015b). It is critical to begin controlling yellow nutsedge when first detected in a field as a single yellow nutsedge plant from a spouted tuber can form a dense patch (105 shoots per square foot) after six months of growth (Webster 2005). Population density of yellow nutsedge can easily increase as much as 7% over a four-month period, making it very difficult to achieve control (Meyers and Shankle 2015a). Managing yellow nutsedge to keep density as low as possible is important as marketable sweetpotato yield losses of 18 to 80% have been observed as yellow nutsedge density increases from 0.5 to 8.4 shoots per square foot, respectively (Meyers and Shankle 2015a). Yellow nutsedge’s high potential for vegetative growth and reproduction, and difficulty to control, necessitates that management strategies for nutsedge be focused on prevention (control prior to transplanting); early detection and treatment (cultivation, hand-removal, if possible); and integration of control strategies (crop rotation, optimum transplanting date, optimum sweetpotato growth, timely cultivation) to reduce its spread to and effects on sweetpotato growth and crop yield (Meyers and Shankle 2015a, 2015b; Ransom et al. 2009). Sanitizing all equipment is a critical method to prevent spread of tubers from field to field (Meyers and Shankle 2015b).

Annual and Perennial Grasses

In North Carolina, annual (large crabgrass, goosegrass, barnyardgrass, broadleaf signalgrass, fall panicum) and perennial (Johnsongrass) grasses are often observed in sweetpotato fields. They generally emerge between field preparation and early in the growing season. All of these grasses can grow taller than sweetpotato when they emerge early in the season, before extensive sweetpotato growth can occur. Grasses not controlled early in the season must be controlled prior to the last third of the crop growing season, when sweetpotato storage roots are sizing up otherwise reduced crop vigor. It is imperative to control both annual and perennial grasses before they produce seeds or reproductive rhizomes (perennials such as Johnsongrass).

Annual Morningglory (many species)

Entireleaf morningglory, ivyleaf morningglory, pitted morningglory, tall morningglory, and smallflower morningglory are commonly observed in sweetpotato fields in North Carolina. These weeds establish from seeds and have a growth habit that is vining, similar to sweetpotato. They must be controlled early in the growing season through cultivation and hand-removal; control is extremely difficult as they intertwine with sweetpotato and other weeds and grow to the top of the crop canopy, resulting in rapid growth and seed production (Price and Wilcut 2007). Being positioned at the top of the canopy allows morningglory to compete with the crop for light, nutrients, and water, which can reduce sweetpotato yield and quality. Morningglory seeds remain viable in soil for many years likely due to their hard seed coat (DeFelice 2001; Elmore et al. 1990). Morningglory should thus be controlled prior to the weed vining and producing seeds.

Purslane (Common and Pink)

Common and pink purslane are low-growing annual weeds common in North Carolina sweetpotato. Purslanes have thick succulent stems and leaves that enable them to thrive in many environmental conditions, including dry conditions. They reproduce from seeds and from fragmented stems sections having a node (Holm et al. 1977; Proctor 2013; Proctor et al. 2011). Purslane seeds have reportedly remained viable for as long as 40 years (Darlington 1941). To prevent seed production, cultivation or hand-hoeing of purslane should occur within the first three weeks after emergence or 125 growing degree days (Haar and Fennimore 2003; University of California 1990). Scouting the field after cultivation is equally important to verify purslane was effectively controlled and stem sections are not reestablishing. Relatively speaking, while not as competitive as tall weeds (such as pigweed), purslanes add to the competitive load of a weed population in an organic sweetpotato field.


Skip to References

Darlington, H.T. 1941. “The Sixty-Year Period for Dr. Beal’s Seed Viability Experiment.” American Journal of Botany 28: 271–273.

DeFelice, M.S. 2001. “Tall morningglory, Ipomoea purpurea (L.) Roth—Flower or Foe?” Weed Technology 15: 601–606.

Elmore, C.D., H.R. Hurst, and D.F. Austin. 1990. “Biology and Control of Morningglories (Ipomoea spp.).” Reviews of Weed Science 5: 83–224.

Gajanayake, B., K.R. Reddy, and M.W. Shankle. 2015. “Quantifying Growth and Development Responses of Sweetpotato to Mid- And Late-Season Temperature.” Agronomy Journal 107: 1854–1862.

Gajanayake, B, K.R. Reddy, M.W. Shankle, R.A. Arancibia, and A.O. Villordon. 2014. “Quantifying Storage Root Initiation, Growth, and Development Responses of Sweetpotato To Early Season Temperature.” Agronomy Journal 106: 1795–1804.

Gajanayake, B, K.R. Reddy, M.W. Shankle, and R.A. Arancibia. 2013. “Early-Season Soil Moisture Deficit Reduces Sweetpotato Storage Root Initiation and Development.” HortScience 48: 1457–1462.

Haar, M.J. and S.A. Fennimore. 2003. “Evaluation of Integrated Practices for Common Purslane (Portulaca Oleracea) Management in Lettuce (Latuca sativa).” Weed Technology 17: 229–233.

Harrison, H.F. and D.M. Jackson. 2011. “Response of Two Sweet Potato Cultivars to Weed Interference.” Crop Protection 30: 1291–1296.

Holm, L.G., D.L. Pluchnett, J.V. Pancho, and J.P. Herberger. 1977. The World’s Worst Weeds: Distribution and Biology. Honolulu: The University Press of Hawaii.

Legleiter, T. and B. Johnson. 2013. Palmer Amaranth Biology, Identification, and Management. Purdue University Extension Publication WS-51.

Meyers, S.L., R.A. Arancibia, M.W. Shankle, J. Main, and R.K. Reddy. 2014. Sweet Potato Storage Root Initiation. Mississippi State University Extension Publication 2809: 1–4.

Meyers, S.L., K.M. Jennings, J.R. Schultheis, and D.W. Monks. 2010. “Interference of Palmer Amaranth (Amaranthus Palmer) in Sweetpotato.” Weed Science 58: 199–203.

Meyers, S.L. and M.W. Shankle. 2015a. “Interference of Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus Esculentus) in ‘Beauregard’ Sweet Potato (Ipomoea batatas).” Weed Technology 29: 854–860.

Meyers, S.L. and M.W. Shankle. 2015b. Nutsedge Management in Mississippi Sweetpotatoes. Mississippi State University Extension Publication 2909.

Meyers, S.L. and M.W. Shankle. 2017. “An Evaluation of Pre-Emergence Metam-Potassium And S-Metolachlor for Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus Esculentus) Management in Sweetpotato.” Weed Technology 31(3): 436–440.

Pardales, J.R. and A. Yamauchi. 2003. “Regulation of Root Development in Sweetpotato and Cassava by Soil Moisture During Their Establishment Period.” Plant and Soil 255: 201–208.

Price, A.J. and J.W. Wilcut. 2007. “Response of Ivyleaf Morningglory (Ipomoea Hederaceae) to Neighboring Plants and Objects.” Weed Technology 21: 922–927.

Proctor, C. 2013. “Biology and Control of Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea L.).” PhD thesis, University of Nebraska–Lincoln.

Proctor, C.A., R.E. Gaussoin, and Z.J. Reicher. 2011. “Vegetative Reproduction Potential of Common Purslane (Portulaca oleracea).” Weed Technology 25: 694–697.

Ransom, C.V., C.A. Rice, and C.C. Shock. 2009. “Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus Esculentus) Growth and Reproduction in Response to Nitrogen and Irrigation.” Weed Science 57: 21–25.

Seem, J.E., N.G. Creamer, and D.W. Monks. 2003. “Critical Weed-Free Period for ‘Beauregard’ Sweetpotato (Ipomoea batatas).” Weed Science 17: 686–695.

Smith, S., K.M. Jennings, and D.W. Monks. 2017. “Timing of Palmer amaranth Control on Sweetpotato Yield and Quality.” Southern Region American Society for Horticultural Science 2017 meeting abstracts.

Sosnoskie, L.M., T.M. Webster, A.S. Culpepper, and J. Kichler. 2014. The Biology and Ecology of Palmer Amaranth: Implications for Control. University of Georgia Extension Circular 1000.

University of California. 1990. Degree-Day Utility User's Guide Version 2.0. University of California Integrated Pest Management 9.

Villordon, A., D. LaBonte, J. Solis, and N. Firon. 2012. “Characterization of Lateral Root Development at the Onset of Storage Root Initiation in ‘Beauregard’ Sweetpotato Adventitious Roots.” HortScience 47: 961–968.

Ward, S.M., T.M. Webster, and L.E. Steckel. 2013. “Palmer Amaranth (Amaranthus palmeri): A Review.” Weed Technology 27: 12–27.

Webster, T.M. 2014. “Weed Survey–Southern States.” Proceedings of the 67th Southern Weed Science Society. Birmingham: Southern Weed Science Society.

Webster, T.M. 2005. “Patch Expansion of Purple Nutsedge (Cyperus Rotundus) and Yellow Nutsedge (Cyperus Esculentus) With and Without Polyethylene Mulch.” Weed Science 53 (6): 839–845.

Insect Pest Management

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Pest control for organic sweetpotato requires an integrated approach that minimizes risk for insect damage over time. Unlike conventional production that can leverage acutely toxic insecticides to disrupt pests, organic systems depend on longer-term reductions in pest populations to achieve economically acceptable levels of damage. Because the number of OMRI-listed insecticides for sweetpotato pests is currently limited, a comprehensive Integrated Pest Management (IPM) program that includes multiple tactics to limit pest infestation is important to mitigate damage risk. A holistic approach that incorporates crop rotation, insect-resistant varieties, and other tactics can mitigate risk for insect damage and economic loss.

Agronomically important sweetpotato pests feed on foliage and developing roots below the soil surface; however, many of these pests only cause economic injury when infestation levels are high. Typically, foliage-feeding pests cause sporadic problems in organic sweetpotato but can cause significant losses when left uncontrolled. Soilborne insect pests that feed directly on developing roots are the most important and consistent group of pests that cause economic damage to the crop annually.

To understand the pests that can damage the crop, this production section has been divided by pest complex and the location where problems typically occur (greenhouse, field, storage unit). A general description of each pest’s interaction with the crop is described to highlight key vulnerabilities that can be exploited to manage populations.

Greenhouse Pests

Aphids and Whitefly

Aphids and whiteflies are small, soft-bodied hemipteran insect pests that feed on plant sap using piercing-sucking mouthparts. When infestations are large, these pests can reduce plant health through direct feeding. In contrast, even low numbers of these insects can vector plant viruses (such as sweetpotato feathery mottle virus and sweetpotato leaf curl virus) that harm the plant and cause yield impacts. Because these insects can spread viruses among plants, purchasing virus- and vector-free seed or slips from a certified seed producer is a key step to limit primary introduction and the potential for subsequent disease spread to healthy plants during the season.

Aphids and whiteflies can be an issue during seed propagation in the greenhouse and occasionally in the field. Scouting greenhouses for insect presence is an important strategy to document the establishment and spread of pest populations. Adult whiteflies can be observed flying around the plant canopy when disturbed. Look at the underside of sweetpotato leaves for whitefly larvae (crawlers), aphids, honeydew, and sooty mold, all of which are obvious signs of a growing infestation. For greenhouse seed production, planning a plant-free period before propagating sweetpotato seed can limit carryover of pests from previous greenhouse crops. Several OMRI-approved products are listed for aphid and whitefly control; however, some active ingredients (pyrethrum) may have limited efficacy where resistance occurs.


Mites are a common pest during greenhouse seed production. Common mite species are twospotted spider mite (Tetranychus urticae) and broad mite (Polyphagotarsonemus latus). Mites use piercing-sucking mouthparts to damage plant cells, a process that causes leaves to curl, brittle, and shrivel. Heavy mite infestations can cause characteristic bronzing and severe deformation of sweetpotato foliage. Broad mites are particularly difficult to diagnose, causing characteristic twisting of sweetpotato growing points that can be confused for herbicide toxicity from an external source.

In the greenhouse, mites can infest adjacent plants via touching foliage or by workers handling infested foliage and then touching uninfected plants. Moreover, broad mites can disperse between plants on air currents. Because mites have a high reproduction rate, populations can reach damaging levels quickly if conditions are favorable. Preventative control measures for organic greenhouse systems start with clean seed stock and good sanitation practices when moving between greenhouses. Mineral oil and insecticidal soaps are useful tools to reduce mite populations. Maximizing coverage throughout the plant canopy is essential for adequate efficacy with miticidal soaps and oils. Sulfur is a common control strategy for broad mites specifically. Always use a high rate and spray gallonage to improve coverage on leaves and stems. Frequent reapplications may be necessary to adequately control problematic populations.

Predatory mites can be an effective biological control agent when densities of pest mite populations are low to moderate. Phytoseiulus persimilis is a species of predatory mite that is commercially available for greenhouse mite control and can be effective for twospotted spider mite control. Carefully read all establishment instructions and monitor greenhouse temperature conditions to improve predatory mite establishment.


Western flower thrips (Frankliniella occidentalis) are a common pest in many greenhouse crops. In sweetpotato, thrips feed on leaf tissue, often causing silvering when pressure is high. Adults are very mobile but larvae tend to aggregate near leaf venation and can be observed using a hand lens. To scout for thrips, strike sweetpotato foliage several locations throughout the greenhouse on a white paper plate. Light brown, cigar-shaped adults and larvae will be apparent when densities are high.

Thrips do not typically cause significant injury to sweetpotato seed plants in the greenhouse. However, if infestations have been problematic in the past, proactive management is important to minimize damage and maintain plant health. Spinosad is an effective thrips material when applied in a timely manner before large populations become established. Beauvaria bassiana and botanically based, OMRI-approved insecticides (azadirachtin and pyrethrins) are also effective on thrips but may require more frequent applications under high infestation levels. Rotation of insecticides is important to limit resistance development in greenhouses.

Scout greenhouses weekly for thrips, aphids, and whitefly infestations. Always sample from multiple greenhouse locations and positions in the plant canopy. Because management of greenhouse pests is a challenge, detecting developing pest populations is crucial to a timely and effective response.

Field pests

Wireworms and Other Root-Feeding Pests

Wireworms are the primary insect pest of organic sweetpotato production systems in the Southeast. In eastern North Carolina, there are eight different wireworm species that have been documented in sweetpotato fields; however, tobacco wireworm (Conoderus vespertinus Fabricius) is the most common pest of the crop. Currently, very little is known about the wireworm species that infest sweetpotato or white potato in the piedmont or mountain regions of the state.

Wireworms have varied lifecycles that make these pests a significant challenge for organic sweetpotato growers. Wireworms generally take between one and four years (or longer) to complete development from egg to adult. The long period spent as larvae (over 95% of the lifecycle) results in multiple generations of wireworms in the soil that can cause different amounts of damage, depending on size (larval instar). Wireworm larvae feed on developing sweetpotato roots throughout the growing season, causing pinhole damage sites on the outside of roots. Sweetpotato plants often compensate for early season wireworm damage by forming a callous skin over the feeding site, often causing irregular root development.

Crop rotation for wireworm. As some wireworm species can persist in the soil for several years as larvae, long-term crop rotation away from suitable host plants is one of the most effective methods to reduce the risk of root damage. For the majority of organic growers, planning crop rotations that do not involve corn or another grass species is one strategy to reduce wireworm damage on sweetpotato. Several key wireworm species in North Carolina will preferentially lay eggs in crops like corn and small grains. Fallow fields with high numbers of weeds in the autumn can be important alternate hosts for wireworm larvae. Separating the sweetpotato crop from these alternate hosts in time will reduce the abundance of larvae and, in turn, the risk for root damage. Rotation to a less-desirable host plant (peanut or soybean) will allow existing larvae to complete development and disperse to alternate hosts, often in non-crop areas.

Over the past several years, organic growers have transitioned pasture land to certified organic sweetpotato production. While there may be agronomic benefits to plant sweetpotato on recently converted land, the risk for wireworm damage is high because grasses are preferred alternate hosts of several economically important wireworm species. Avoid planting sweetpotato on land that had been pasture during the past several years. Extending the period between pasture and a sensitive root crop like sweetpotato or white potato will be important to minimize damage risk.

Varietal selection. Choosing the correct sweetpotato variety for the target market is an important decision for an organic farmer. Understanding which specific varietal characteristics fit your market is crucial, although some varieties do have greater disease and insect tolerance. New sweetpotato varieties developed by the Potato and Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics Program at North Carolina State University have pest- and disease-resistance characteristics. Please see Table 8.1 for more information about insect- and disease-resistant sweetpotato varieties.

Chemical management. Controlling wireworms with chemicals is an ongoing challenge for both organic and conventional sweetpotato farmers. For organic systems, there are a limited number of OMRI-approved plant- and microbial-based biological insecticide options that have efficacy on wireworms. Recently labeled biological insecticidal materials have shown some promise for wireworm suppression, including formulations containing Burkholderia spp. These insecticides are typically incorporated into the soil before bed-forming and again at fertilizer layby. For pre-plant applications, thorough incorporation is important to establish an insecticidal barrier that will limit movement of existing wireworms into the root zone. Applications at layby also need to be incorporated to create an insecticidal barrier for insects laying eggs in the crop during the growing season (tobacco wireworm). This tandem approach is important to maximize protection. For all applications, consider using the highest-labeled application rate and an increased spray volume (15 gallons per acre or greater) to ensure application uniformity in the soil profile.

Caterpillar Pests

Caterpillars can be a minor defoliating pest late in the sweetpotato growing season. Although several different lepidopteran larvae (caterpillars) species can infest the crop, several armyworm species and corn earworm are common in North Carolina. Infestations are often very sporadic within and among fields, causing minimal economic damage because infestations typically occur after root-bulking. Larvae will also feed directly on exposed sweetpotato roots after vine destruction. These larvae are occasionally found feeding on roots in storage facilities, causing some concern for post-harvest contamination.

Several OMRI-approved insecticides are available for caterpillar control in sweetpotato. Spinosad and Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) insecticidal formulations have efficacy on most caterpillar species found in the crop. Small larvae are easier to control as larger larvae may pupate shortly. Larvae must be actively feeding on treated leaves, and thus, uniform spray coverage across the canopy is essential. Using an approved spreader-sticker and increased spray volume may improve canopy coverage and rain-fastness of sprays. Always use higher label rates and shorten the time between applications to ensure adequate efficacy under high levels of infestation.

Storage Pests

Fruit Flies

Damaged or rotting produce provide ideal food sources for several different species of fruit flies found in storage facilities. All of these insects lay eggs in open wounds in the skin of the sweetpotato, where the larvae subsequently develop and pupate. Improving the quality of roots entering storage through proper curing is an important factor to limit large fruit fly infestations and the potential for further spread of post-harvest disease.

Fruit flies can be managed with attract-and-kill stationary fly traps equipped with vinegar and yeast baits. Pyrethrin-based insecticides can also be applied in storage houses using Ultra Low Volume (ULV) foggers that produce small insecticide droplets that can cover and penetrate spaces around roots, increasing the probability of contacting adult fruit flies. While the number of flies may be reduced using this approach, there is minimal evidence that increasing fly mortality relates to higher post-harvest root quality.

Post-harvest Curing and Storage

Skip to Post-harvest Curing and Storage

Proper curing and storage of sweetpotato is an important step in the production process that can ensure stability of the product from the field to the consumer. The curing process improves the visual appeal, shelf life, and flavor characteristics of harvested roots. Successful curing requires proper infrastructure to maintain roots at a set temperature (85°F) and humidity (85% to 90% RH) for three to five days. Alternatively, sweetpotato roots can be packed and consumed “green,” however, these roots may not possess the same characteristics and storage ability of cured roots.

For more information on sweetpotato storage, please refer to the NC State Extension publication Postharvest Handling of Sweetpotatoes (AG-413-10-B).


Associate Professor
Horticultural Science
Associate Professor, Plant Pathology (Cucurbits and Sweetpotato)
Entomology & Plant Pathology
Specialist, Sweetpotato/Curcurbits/Sweet Corn
Horticultural Science
Crop & Soil Sciences
Horticultural Science
Sweetpotato Breeding and Genetics
Horticultural Science
Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Field Crops and Sweet Potatoes
Entomology & Plant Pathology
Field Research Director IR-4 Project
Storage Research Specialist
Biological & Agricultural Engineering

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Publication date: March 19, 2024

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