Yesterday I visited Farm Pak, the largest company cultivating sweet potatoes in the United States. Carson Barnes started a small scale cultivation in Nash County (North Carolina) in 1960, and nowadays the second generation grows sweet potatoes on over 2,000 hectares, spread over three counties. At the moment the harvest period is in full swing and Farm Pak has 600 employees - mainly Mexicans.

Farm Pak grows the varieties Covington (the largest variety by far), Evangeline and Muraski. Out of the total volume marketed by the company, 55% finds its way to the American retail, 5% goes to food service and 5% goes to processing. The export, fully focussed on the EU, takes up the rest of the 35% share. It wasn't until 2004 that the first successful shipment found its way to Rotterdam, and the export volumes have increased over the course of the years. 

Farm Pak director: John Barnes

United Kingdom
With a share of 70% of the total export the United Kingdom is Farm Pak's main market. As far as consumption is concerned the United Kingdom is in the lead in Europe. Among other things, In-Store promotions at Sainsbury's with a chef cause a rise in sales. And when Jamie Oliver started working with sweet potatoes, the British went wild. The consumption of sweet potatoes is traditionally at its highest around Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Other export countries that Farm Pak focuses on are the Benelux, Germany, Poland, France and Spain. According to president and owner John Barnes, also director of the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute (ASPMI) export to Asia in particular is difficult. The US isn't allowed to sent produce to Japan due to phytosanitary demands and China is the largest produces of sweet potatoes worldwide, albeit for the domestic market.

According to Barnes, the competition is from production countries such as Israel, Honduras, Egypt and Spain, but he emphasizes that no sweet potato can beat the North American one due to the climate and soil. Besides this, the North American products is available all year round, as opposed to the supply from other production countries. The North American production also has the advantage as far as logistics and storage capacity is concerned. Around half of the sweet potatoes on the European market are from the US. 

Besides being the largest grower of sweet potatoes in North America, Farm Pak is also the grower with the largest organic area 2(240 ha). Organic sweet potatoes are especially popular in Europe. Of the volume sent by Farm Pak to Europe, 15% is organic. Although harvest is more risky and the yields are only 60% that of the conventional cultivation, the company only sees the demand increasing and is therefore fully investing in the organic cultivation.

Good harvest
The total harvest in the US is around 977,000 tonnes of sweet potatoes. Harvest in the US runs from the beginning of September until the end of October. The fresh potatoes are stored in special barns in the optimal temperature and air humidity so that they can be shipped to Europe. According to John Barnes there is a good harvest this year, despite the rain in July and August. "We had more problems last year, but the yields this year are a lot higher. The quality, flavour and peel are very good this year."

All of the harvest is done by hand. A labour intensive process, a visit to the fields showed, where tens of Mexicans were working on the sweet potatoes harvest, singing and shouting. Every harvested basket is stamped per employee. This isn't for nothing, as besides the basic salary. extra can be earned per harvested basket, said Jose Calderon, aka Pepe. And he would know, as the Costa Rican arrived at the company as a seasonal worker and has now been working as a sales manager for a number of years.

For more information:
Jose Calderon (Pepe)
Farm Pak
7840 Old Bailey HWY
Spring Hope, NC 27882
Tel: 252-459-3101252-459-3101
Mob: 252-885-6633252-885-6633
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