Quality key to success for North Carolina sweet potato grower

Quality is so essential to Wilson, N.C., sweet potato grower Jerome Vick that he won’t even swap green sweet potatoes for a chocolate pie — and he really likes chocolate pie.

Vick laughs, telling the story of a landowner who annually swaps him home made pies for sweet potatoes. “She called the other day and said the chocolate pie was ready, and asked could she get some sweet potatoes. I said, no they aren’t cured yet.”

“When the previous year’s crop runs out, some growers have to supply their customers with sweet potatoes before they are fully cured. But, it’s better long-term if we could supply the market with cured sweet potatoes, if that’s possible.”

He explains that the 2006 crop was to be cured primarily in November. It takes about six weeks to cure properly. They will pack sweet potatoes well into 2007. Ideally, they will pack enough sweet potatoes to overlap until the 2007 crop comes in and can be cured. Sometimes, like in 2006, the previous year’s crop runs out, creating a temporary shortage.

“We designed a new packing line and house to help us improve quality. The new house will hold 150,000 bushels of sweet potatoes. The house is designed to keep the crop cooled or heated to 55-57 degrees F year around and to maintain relative humidity at 85-86 percent,” he explains.

The new state-of-the-art packing house is only one measure Vick is taking to insure he sells only high quality sweet potatoes.

Vick Farms is one of 41 sweet potato growers in North Carolina, Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi participating in a Southern Sweet Potato IPM project. The multi-state project allows growers to look at real world production practices and compare the efficacy of different insect management strategies.

Mark Abney, a North Carolina State University entomologist who coordinates the project, says a key component is controlling insects that directly affect quality of a sweet potato crop. In particular, the North Carolina component of the study has shown that replacing foliar sprays that are typically applied every 10 days from mid-June through August, with an incorporated, soil applied insecticide produces better insect control for less cost.

“We hope the new IPM practices will eliminate some of the disease problems and some of the in-take damage we are taking into the house. We want to increase the potential packabililty of the crop. The best way to pack good sweet potatoes is to put good sweet potatoes in the potato house. But the sweet potato house is not a hospital — it doesn’t make the sweet potato any better,” Vick says.

“We have gone to the new Covington variety as our primary sweet potato, which has helped. It doesn’t seem to have as much insect damage as Beauregards. Abney concurs, pointing out that in their multi-state tests there is noticeably less flea beetle injury to Covington versus Beauregard sweet potatoes. “We don’t detect the same differences in wireworm damage,” he adds.

“Up until our work with the IPM program, we were using a foliar insecticide spray program. Now, we use Capture and Lorsban up front and incorporate it into the soil,” Vick says. He adds this combination has helped in managing insect damage, but there is a need for a good granular insecticide.

All the effort that goes into producing a quality sweet potato is really for the housewife, Vick contends. “She is the one buying the sweet potatoes, and if they don’t look and taste good, we have turned off both our primary buyer and secondary users, because her family is not going to like sweet potatoes either.

Selling sweet potatoes to Europe has become a real plus for Vick and other North Carolina grower, packer, shippers. “Last year we sold 65 tractor trailer loads of sweet potatoes to the United Kingdom. We market through a broker and a freight forwarder, who lines up the transportation. The potatoes are loaded in a container here on the farm and go to Norfolk, where they are loaded on a ship and two weeks later they get to the UK,” he explains.

“We’ve been GAP certified for some time, but when we started to ship to the UK, we had to be EuroGAP certified. Trace-back capability is a key component of EuroGap certification. We have to know what is sprayed on the potatoes and when. That is going to be more and more important, as we see scares like the recent spinach problems,” he says.

“Direct sales will be more important to us in the future, he says. The single most critical factor as to whether the phone rings and people order sweet potatoes is quality. That’s why we work so hard in the field to produce a high quality crop and why we invest so heavily in new equipment and facilities,” he adds.

Vick knows what he’s talking about when he speaks of the long-term. He has been growing sweet potatoes in the Wilson, N.C., area since 1982. He grows 700-800 acres of sweet potatoes, plus 450 acres of tobacco and 1,900 acres of cotton.

“Sweet potatoes and tobacco are both very labor intensive and labor is the most critical factor facing growers in our area,” Vick contends. “Politicians are talking about building a wall along the Mexican border to keep illegal aliens out. They better build the wall before they send the Mexicans back, otherwise there won’t be any labor to do it,” Vick laughs.

Vick, his son, Lynwood, and most of the management people working on the farm learned Spanish. “It was one of the best things we’ve ever done, he says. I learned Spanish one word at a time and over time all our people learned to speak at a level that allows us to communicate directly with our farm labor,” he says.

“The Mexicans that work here are hard working and proud people. I have the utmost respect for them, and it’s the least I can do to learn how to communicate with them,” he adds.

From one trip to Vick Farms it is clear that everything is done with quality in mind. From tobacco curing barns to landscaping outside the office building, everything is quality-based.

e-mail: [email protected]

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