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September 23, 2010   Email to Friend 

ONE POTATO, TWO POTATO: Sweet Potato Growers Hope New Venture Puts More 'Taters On Table
By Darryal Ray

'No order is too big or too small,' says Brian Kress.'You want one box or one 'tater, I'll sell it to you.'
There's nothing that'll bring folks to their knees like sweet potatoes.

Even at 5 a.m., before a merciless late August sun began beating down, no less than a half dozen workers were digging in the dirt with flashlights at Kress Farm in search of Cullman County's favorite 'tater.

Of course, sweet potatoes aren't hard to find in Cullman County -- this nine-acre field alone will yield about 108,000 pounds of potatoes before season's end. But even that is only a fraction of what brothers Kerry and Brian Kress expect to harvest this year.

"We average about 300 40-pound boxes per acre," said Brian. "This year, I think we'll do more than that. It's been hot, but we've had moisture. Conditions have not been perfect, but they never are. But I'll take this year. I believe we're going to have a good year."

Another reason for that optimism is the demand for sweet potatoes continues to climb. High in fiber and packed with beta carotene, Vitamin A and other nutrients, sweet potato consumption has grown by 21 percent over the last five years, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It's a demand that hasn't gone unnoticed by ConAgra Foods, Inc. The company's Lamb Weston Division is to open the nation's only sweet potato processing plant in Delhi, La., this month, turning out more than 20 frozen sweet potato products -- most of them variations of french fries.

The $210 million facility with more than 240 workers can process 25 tons of sweet potatoes per hour, but it was built with expansion in mind. The company expects to double its workforce to 500 within five years.

"This plant will need about 22,000 acres of sweet potatoes," said Arnold Caylor, director of the North Alabama Horticulture Research Center in Cullman, a substation of the Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station. "And that's in addition to what's already being grown. That's probably one reason you are seeing a bump in acreage; some growers may have planted a little extra, thinking that they will be able to provide some of that."

While his farm is 300 miles away from the plant, Brian Kress was aware of its plans when he boosted his sweet potato acreage this year to 100 acres, about 20 more than he's ever planted. "This fall crop will be the first potatoes they'll buy," he said. "That's a new market for us, and it's going to help keep the price up.

"Sweet potatoes are our money crop," Brian added. "We grow other things -- corn, soybeans, wheat and Irish potatoes -- but sweet potatoes are where we make our living."

He said that Cullman County's rolling farmland and loose, sandy soil make sweet potatoes a logical alternative to row crops like corn and soybeans. "Sometimes, it's aggravating doing these old hillsides," he said. "But it's got its advantages -- like last year when it was so wet, Louisiana and Mississippi couldn't get their potatoes out of the field. We were getting stuck, but we were wallowing through it."

This year, the Kress brothers began in late August digging just enough potatoes to fill orders, whether for Walmart or a roadside stand. "No order is too big or too small. You want one box or one 'tater, I'll sell it to you," said Brian. "Or, if you want a trailer load, we'll do that too."

Sweet potatoes have long been a mainstay for Cullman County farmers. For years, it was the state's top producer but has since taken a backseat to Baldwin County, which will produce about 1,500 acres this season.

Baldwin is also where grower Leonard Kichler, who serves as president of both the Alabama Sweet Potato Association and the United States Sweet Potato Council, farms about 90 acres in Elberta. About 75 percent of his crop will go to Walmart.

Kichler, who has been farming sweet potatoes for four decades, says Baldwin County growers are also excited about the Louisiana plant. "A lot of guys are interested in it, but it depends on what they'll pay," said Kichler. "The plant only wants potatoes that are two inches or larger in diameter -- the bigger the better. We'll have to see how that will affect the price."

Even so, Kichler doesn't see the state's yearly production changing much. "I think it's probably going to stay about the same because these new Good Agricultural Practices regulations are scaring everybody to death. It's a good thing, but it's a nightmare with all the record-keeping."

Caylor says the state's production currently hovers around 3,500 acres, placing it fifth in the nation behind North Carolina (45,000-50,000 acres), California (20,000), Mississippi (18,000-20,000) and Louisiana (12,000-15,000).

"There's no telling how many growers we used to have," said Brian. "But every time one has quit or died, nobody has taken their place. Every time we lose one that's just one lost. There's nobody getting into it."

The reasons for that, he said, are labor and other input costs. "You can't do it by yourself like soybeans or corn or cotton," he said. "You can't pick these up by yourself, and you can't set them out by yourself. It takes a lot of labor to do it."

At the peak of the harvest, the Kresses will employ about 25 workers, mostly local folks -- retirees, housewives and others -- who come back year after year. In February, they help bed the potatoes. From mid-May until mid-June, they help pull the plants and set them out. At harvest time, they pick up the potatoes, placing them in buckets or baskets that are then carefully emptied into wooden bins and taken to the packing shed for washing, sorting and boxing.

"This is pretty much my regular crew," said Brian as he looked across his field. "When I'm setting plants and pulling plants, this is pretty much the ones I work year round. When we start digging every day, then I bring in the seasonal help. But this is the bunch that helps me pull my plants and set them out. I like to keep something for them to do instead of bringing in other people."

Of course, there are mechanical harvesters that can dig and pick up the potatoes, he said, but that's not practical for his operation.

"Yes, it would be easier, but it's harder on the potato," said Brian. "We're not as big as Mississippi, North Carolina or Louisiana where a 'little' farmer is one with 500 acres. They can do so much more than we can, but we can beat them on quality."

It's quality -- defined as a "No. 1" by grading standards -- that the Kresses strive for in their "fresh market" potatoes.

"When you go into a grocery store and you see them setting out there, that's the market we shoot for," he said. "I've got one place in Birmingham that supplies restaurants, small grocery stores and schools. The rest usually go to grocery stores. We shoot for the fresh market. That pays more, and you've got to have a little better quality, do a little better job, than if you're selling to some of these other places."

Still, he says, sweet potato farmers only get two chances to make the sales that'll make the season worthwhile.

"If you are going to grow sweet potatoes, you need to load 'em up on Thanksgiving and Christmas. People will eat sweet potatoes on those two days and never eat them again until the next Thanksgiving and Christmas," he said. "Thanksgiving is our biggest day -- you need to sell every potato you can. After that, it's Christmas. Easter will pick up a little bit, and from then on out it's just whatever you can do to get rid of them."

But with baked sweet potatoes on more and more menus and the new Louisiana processing plant cranking out 25 tons of frozen sweet potato fries an hour, there are signs that America is ready for a 'tater love affair far beyond the golden arches.

The Alabama Sweet Potato Association will host the 49th Annual United States Sweet Potato Convention on Jan. 23-25, 2011, at Perdido Beach Resort in Orange Beach. For more information, contact Arnold Caylor at cayloaw@auburn.edu or (256) 734-5820.

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