On Jan. 1, 2012, Stephen Meyers began his first job following graduation from college, and it was his entry into the produce industry as a career.
The 28-year-old Dr. Meyers, regional sweet potato extension specialist for the Mississippi State University-Extension Service, told The Produce News that because his position at Pontotoc Ridge-Flatwoods Branch Experiment Station for Mississippi State University is a newly created one,he is still trying to define precisely what it will entail. But it will certainly involve researching sweet potatoes.
“I am a liaison between researchers and sweet potato growers in Mississippi,” said Dr. Meyers. “But I will also collaborate with researchers in other states, and so our work will ultimately benefit all sweet potato growers in the United States. My job is to make sure that the research being conducted is on what the growers need and can use, and to make sure that that information reaches them in ways that they can understand and apply.”
Dr. Meyers’ upbringing would not make anyone guess that the Indiana native would end up in agriculture. His family members were neither farmers nor were they involved in agriculture in any way. But somehow he developed an interest in gardening at a very young age.
“From the time I was very young I had a backyard garden and I grew just about anything you could think of,” said Dr. Meyers. “I even grew the Vardaman variety of sweet potato in my garden. Today I find that ironic because the Vardaman, which is a golden-skin, orange-flesh variety that does better than many others in colder temperatures, was developed in Mississippi. Also, the town of the same name is where the headquarters office of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council is located.”
His education decision came easy. From 2003 to 2007 he attended Purdue University in West Lafayette, IN, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in horticultural production and marketing.
“Initially, I thought I would own a greenhouse or nursery and sell landscaping plants,” he said. “But then I took my first business class at Purdue and learned that most small businesses fail. So I decided to go in a different direction.”
Following graduation from Purdue, he went on to pursue a master’s degree at North Carolina State University in Raleigh. He earned his master’s in 2009 and started working toward his doctorate, also at N.C. State.
As he was considering where to apply for work, his wife, Jess, encouraged him to look farther south to a more temperate climate, which is how he came to apply for his new position in Mississippi.
Of meeting his wife during his second semester at Purdue, Dr. Meyers said, “We were both studying horticulture and initially met when we were in the same chemistry class. We were later in the same plant propagation class and were grafting willows. Jess cut herself and had to leave the class. I grafted a second one for her in her absence, and that’s how I won her over.”
The couple enjoys participating in just about any outdoor activity, especially camping in state parks. They love vegetable gardening and enjoy cooking what they grow. Dr. Meyers also enjoys making wine and collecting and breeding orchids. The couple is also the proud owner of two Labrador retriever mixes.
“Our yellow male is named Charmin, like the toilet paper,” he said. “His name is really a case of mistaken identity. My family members named him thinking that the mascot character for Charmin in the commercials was a dog, when in fact it’s a bear. Our black female is Ubu. Her name came from Ubu Productions that produced television shows. At the end of the show a voice would say ‘Sit Ubu, sit.’ We just liked the name.”
Charmin and Ubu are siblings. Dr. Meyers said the dogs came into the couple’s life in 2006 when they were on a family outing in Arkansas.
“Dad and I were fishing, and the girls went shopping,” said Dr. Meyers. “Someone had the puppies in a box in the parking lot of the shopping mall looking to find a home for them. Jess saw them and that was that.”
Dr. Meyers completed his doctorate last December and was officially hired by Mississippi State on Jan. 1. He is now researching pest management, which is a primary concern for sweet potato growers.
“We are also looking at mechanical harvesting, which entails a couple of research projects,” he explained. “One is at developing machines that can harvest sweet potatoes in a gentle manner, and also at developing varietals that offer the same attributes of those that are marketed successfully today, but that have tougher skins and so would hold up to mechanical harvesting better.”
Mechanical harvesting for sweet potatoes has long been desired to reduce labor, but the thin and fragile skin of the vegetable is damaged easily, and so most growers have stayed with hand harvesting.
Having been on the job for just a few months, Dr. Meyers said it is hard to know what the future will bring.
“But my goal will be to help sweet potato growers to work smarter, not harder, in the future,” he said. “I am currently meeting with researchers from five states on why some of the preformed root primordial — the little bumps just beneath where the leaf connects to the stem — turn into a sweet potato while others do not.
“I think I’ll really enjoy this position,” he continued. “I have met growers and people like Benny Graves, the director of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council. They are all great and knowledgeable people who I know I’ll enjoy getting to know and learning from.”