It was a challenging 2018 harvest for sweet potato growers across the United States. Each region experienced some kind of adverse weather, with North Carolina - the nation's largest producer - enduring the effects of two hurricanes and record rainfall. Other states had an opportunity to step up and contribute volume, however some areas were affected more than others.
"The weather was atrocious right across the south," observed Ken Thornhill of Thornhill Farms in Louisiana. "Everyone got hurt. However, we were very fortunate with our fields experiencing very little damage. We harvest mechanically so we were able to get a lot of the potatoes out of the field before heavy rains came."
Thornhill added that his company deals with contracts, and therefore has steady supplies. "We grow for the processors and have little to do with the fresh market. Our contracts have remained the same and we normally run out in early summer."
Contracts to processors
For Thornhill Farms, contracts have enabled the company to maintain steady business over the years. They have also seen the processed category grow as more consumers seek out sweet potato alternatives to traditional commodities.
"Working with the frozen processors has been a good deal for us over the years," Thornhill noted. "A lot of our sweet potatoes go to Lamb Weston which was a division of Conagra. They turn them into frozen sweet potato fries and market them all over the world."
The variety the company uses is the Bayou Belle. Thornhill said it pleases him to use this variety for two reasons - it's local and it produces good yields. "Bayou Belle was bred in Louisiana, hence the name," he explained. "The skin is very red and marketers tend to think this aspect is not appealing for the fresh market. However, it's a huge producer and is very sweet, two factors that make it ideal for the processing market."
Ageing farmers a problem for Louisiana sweet potato industry
It's a commonly-known fact that the average age of the American farmer continues to rise. This is felt acutely in the southeast and the Louisiana sweet potato industry in particular. While a few younger farmers are trying their best to keep the local industry going, the state is struggling to keep up as more producers close shop. In fact, this is Ken Thornhill's last season, with the veteran farmer hanging up his boots when the season concludes.
"I'm 76 now and this is my last season," he shared. "Thornhill Farms is going to close because my children are not pursuing this line of work. This is the case with many farms across the country. Farming is hard work that is not always profitable. The ageing of growers is causing a problem for the industry with not many young people looking to farming as a career."
For more information:
Thornhill Farms, LLC
Ph: +1 (318) 724-6687