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VARDAMAN, Miss. — A Houlka farmer takes over as head of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.

Jamie Earp officially took over as president during the group’s annual banquet this weekend.

Danny Clark of Houston is the new vice president of the group, which not only promotes new and existing markets for sweet potatoes but also works on new growing techniques and even recipes.

The 50-year-old organization represents 105 family farms and 26 packing facilities.

And ever wonder what will be the next innovative sweet potato product found on grocery shelves across the county? Perhaps something invented by students at Mississippi State University.

20140113_sweetpotatoGary Jackson, director of the MSU Extension Service, launched the Sweet Potato Innovation Challenge at the Sweet Potato Council’s annual meeting Jan. 10 in Calhoun County.

“The growers told us they needed additional products and markets to make use of their seconds and culls so that they don’t lose that revenue,” Jackson said. “This new program is going to provide research opportunities for students and give them the chance to work with scientists to solve problems.”

Students will create prototypes for sweet potato products and compete for prize money and intellectual property rights as they respond to the farmers’ request.

Jamie Earp, incoming president of the Sweet Potato Council, said the goal is to create steady demand for all of the sweet potatoes grown in the state.

“That would mean we’d never run out of places to sell our culls or No. 2s,” Earp said. “Every year is different. This year we’re still selling those potatoes to processors. But last year, the processing plants didn’t buy any culls past Thanksgiving, and we were throwing away a product that we could have sold for $40 to $60 a bin.”

Earp said sweet potato products that could be adopted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Lunch Program would not only put the vitamin-packed vegetable in the meals of children across the country, but also would give sweet potato growers a reliable market.

The challenge will be coordinated by Stephen Meyer, Extension sweet potato specialist, and Jason Ward, assistant Extension professor in agricultural and biological engineering. The Center for the Advancement of Service-Learning Excellence will recruit professors interested in making the challenge a required component of their classes.

Three teaching faculty have already agreed to participate in the challenge in the 2014 fall semester with more than 120 MSU students scheduled to take part. Student teams and faculty will meet with sweet potato stakeholders, develop a product concept and submit a proposal to the challenge committee. Proposals that meet the challenge requirements and objectives will be awarded a $500 budget for prototype development.

Completed projects will be judged by a panel of growers, MSU Extension faculty, and staff and industry representatives. A $2,500 prize will be awarded to the winning team. Teams may also apply for intellectual property rights to their creations according to MSU procedures.

“The Extension Service is celebrating 100 years of bringing university research to the people of Mississippi,” Jackson said. “It is our goal to continue to support our producers at the grassroots level, with Extension agents and specialists who know what their communities and clients need.”

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