High labor costs for sweet potato production

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Click the play button above to watch a video on Wilson County sweet potato production recorded by Times journalist Drew C. Wilson.

White potatoes and sweet potatoes both grow in the ground, but that’s about where the similarities end.

“There’s nothing similar about sweet potatoes and white potatoes,” said Robert Boyette, co-owner of Boyette Brothers Produce LLC with Michael and Wiley Boyette.

The company sold about 23 million pounds of sweet potatoes in 2016.

“Sweet potatoes and white potatoes, the only thing they have in common is the word potatoes,” Boyette said. “I think that some of the buyers now have the mentality that they should be able to buy a white potato and a sweet potato at the same price.”

The cost of sweet potato production is very high.

“We can’t harvest mechanically. They’ve all got to be handled bucket-by-bucket,” Boyette said. “We’ve got to have labor. We’ve got to harvest them by hand. We’ve got to put them in storage and cure them. We’ve got to toughen that skin to be able to pack them so that they don’t skin up. We can’t handle them bulk.”

Boyette said sweet potatoes can’t be grown, produced and sold at the same price level as white potatoes.

“We’ve got too much labor. We’ve got too much infrastructure,” Boyette said. “To be able to harvest and store sweet potatoes and hold them and guarantee that customer that supply 12 months out of the year costs a lot of money. You’ve got to have climate-controlled rooms. You’ve got to be able to keep the humidity and the temperature at a certain level to be able to preserve the quality of that potato so that you’ve got a quality product for the customer.”

Sweet potatoes earned more than $44.3 million in Wilson County in 2016, which was more than tobacco at $37 million.

“The soil that you grow tobacco on, you can grow sweet potatoes. It’s very conducive. They are compaiable,” Boyette said.

According to Boyette, since the 1960s there have been a lot of sweet potatoes grown in this area. Many tobacco farmers started growing sweet potatoes as a supplement to their other farm income.

The two crops use much of the same equipment.

“Most of the tobacco farmers, when we had the contracts cut or reduced, they were looking to supplement that income. They’ve already got the transplanters and they have already got the cultivators and they got the land,” Boyette said.

“We started out with 100 acres in 1982,” Boyette said.

In 2017, the farm committed 1,150 acres to sweet potatoes.

“Sweet potatoes were always an important part of our operation but we were predominantly a tobacco farm for many, many years and in 2011 we decided to get out of tobacco and increase our sweet potato production and to build this packing facility and start packing and shipping our own potatoes.”

The company added a 250,000-bushel storage facility in 2011. In 2012, it added another building that today serves as the packing house that Boyette manages.

Boyette Brothers Produce employs between 40 and 50 people in the packing house. They are mostly workers from Mexico on H-2A temporary worker visas.

“The way that sweet potatoes and tobacco work out as far as labor, it works pretty good. When they get through with harvesting tobacco, they can harvest potatoes. When they get through transplanting tobacco, they can transplant potatoes,” Boyette said. “It provides jobs for the labor once they get the labor in here. The majority of tobacco farmers now are using H-2A labor. You’ve got to fill out applications. You’ve got specific dates that you have to target when you receive the people and when they need to go back. You’ve got to be able to keep them busy and that’s part of the reason why I think that the sweet potatoes have come into focus as much as they have because it does allow that labor to stay busy through the time they are here.”

The company has really ramped up production after getting out of tobacco.

“It’s been a good move for us,” Boyette said.

Boyette Brothers Produce ships sweet potatoes to the United Kingdom, Ireland, France and Holland.

“Close to 80 percent of what we grow, pack and ship is exported,” Boyette said. “The export market is definitely growing. If it were not for the export business, the U.S. sweet potato industry would not be where it is today. There is a lot of money that has been put into creating markets, export markets, and it has been good for us.”

Marketing conditions for the last year have not been all that great, though.

“We’re selling potatoes cheaper than we should be. It’s just supply and demand,” Boyette said. “Sweet potato production has been good to a lot of people, but we’ve got to the point in the last couple of years where our supply at times has exceeded demand.”

The demand for sweet potatoes continues to rise from frozen french fries to fresh market, but for a couple years, demand has not grown as fast as the supply.

“There’s one thing about a farmer,” Boyette said. “If you show a farmer a profit, we’ll plant our way out of it, and that’s what happened with sweet potatoes. You can get too much of a good thing.”

Boyette said the sweet potato market is basically local-based.

“When you consider that the bulk of the sweet potatoes are in a 35-to-40-mile radius of here and there are 30-some packers in the state of North Carolina, we pretty much set the price. It’s not controlled anywhere but here. We do it to ourselves,” Boyette said. “This whole industry needs to learn how to work together a little better than we have in the last several years.”

“The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission has done a good job of promoting North Carolina sweet potatoes all over the world,” Boyette said.

Boyette Brothers Produce is committed to staying in the sweet potato business.

“I think sweet potato production is here to stay,” Boyette said.

Wilson County sweet potatoes started to be harvested about two weeks ago.

“So far the crop looks to be pretty good,” Boyette said. “Some of the early planted stuff was not shaped real well but as of this week, the yields are picking up and the shape is a lot better. So right now, knock on wood, the crop looks good.”

“We made the decision in 2011 that we were going to ramp up our sweet potato operation and that’s exactly what we did because I feel like sweet potatoes has got a bright future,” Boyette said. “It’s classified as a superfood. It’s not only good to you, it’s good for you. It needs to be in everybody’s diet. The awareness of sweet potatoes is growing every day.”

According to Tommy Batts, of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, the county is actually down in sweet potato acreage. In 2016, Wilson County had about 10,400 acres harvested, and in 2017, there are 9,800 acres planted. Boyette Brothers Farms is one of six sweet potato packing houses in Wilson County.

North Carolina had 95,000 acres in 2016 and this year ,a June projection counted 82,000 acres planted.

“Most people don’t realize that North Carolina is known as the sweet potato capital of the United States,” Batts said. “We grow 50 percent of the sweet potatoes grown in the United States.”