TATER MAN – Vinson Dellinger of Martin sports his logo as he harvests his seed sweet potatoes. Dellinger uses his seed supply to ship across the nation to suppliers.
Not everyone gets hit in the pocket book when a recession rolls into town; some businesses benefit when people try and save money.
The backyard garden patch grows during hard times, reckons Larry Hudson of Gleason’s Steele Plant Co., who ships millions of sweet potato plants all over the country. “No doubt about it,” says Hudson.
“Our biggest increases in business were during the recession in the early 1980s and now.” Even plush patios in New York City are in on the “grow it yourself” trend.
Here in West Tennessee, residents are used to stopping by the local farmers markets in early October to pick out a few Beauregards or Georgia Jets to eat now or store for Thanksgiving holidays.
Not too long ago farmers sat on truck tailgates surrounded by ears of corn; now they lean against a pile of freshly dug sweet potatoes.
But the longer than expected drought may cut into harvest returns this year meaning farmers may have less potatoes to sell as they store away a percentage of their harvest for seed potatoes next year.
For those who are primarily in the plant business and not the eating potato business, not much of the crop was sold this time of year anyway.” We sell very few potatoes now,” says Hudson. “People come by and we might sell a bushel or two.”
The biggest beneficiaries of these crops will be households and farmers around the country who order anywhere from 12 plants to several thousand to grow their own sweet potatoes. Seed companies are also supplied with stock for their catalogues.
What might look like a nice ornamental vine for most people is big business for a couple of farms in Weakley County.
Vinson Dellinger of Martin, who sports a “Tatorman” hat and uses the moniker on his website, estimates that maybe 90 percent of his 10-acre harvest will be set aside for his potato plant business next year. In the middle of harvesting, he says he won’t be able to tell exactly how the drought has cut into his returns until the harvest is finished but worries.
“We didn’t have any rain here from June 11 to July 12,” says Dellinger “and not much after that.” Next year he has plans for irrigation incorporated into his planting scheme.
Evidence of the drought is obvious in both Gleason and Martin area farms as the sweet potato picking contraption waddles down each row in a cloud of dust. Part-time helpers on the truck wear bandanas over their mouth or surgical masks to avoid inhaling the fine clay powder that is stirred up into the air.
Pulled slowly by a tractor, the trailer has a digger on one end that feeds a conveyer belt. As the clumps of hard dirt and potatoes come down the track, workers pull out the potatoes and snap off any tops that are left.
The potatoes are sorted into wooden crates, the successor to the bushel basket, piled along the sides of the truck’s platform.
An earlier process strips the vines off the plant with a clipper attached to a tractor, an even dustier process for the tractor driver.
Dellinger says he was completely enveloped in a cloud of dust one day and had to stop.
Dellinger explains that sweet potatoes are tough but don’t like to get too wet, “although an inch or two more of rain wouldn’t hurt.” “They’ll grow just about anywhere” and will “wait forever” in the ground, he explains. That is until the frost arrives because the sweet potatoes do not grow anymore in ground lower than 55-60 degrees. Clusters of potatoes hang from each plant.
After the September-October harvest, the seed potatoes will go into storage warehouses until February where they will begin their life as new plants in a greenhouse. As they mature in the spring, the real frenzy starts for those at Steele Plant and “Tatorman” Dellinger’s operation, George’s Plant Farm.
That means, “pulling, planting and putting in the mail,” says Dellinger who explains that his partner in the business, wife Donna, is in charge of that essential and frenetic part of the operation.
In Gleason, the mostly May shipping season is on a larger scale with 40-50 high school and college kids employed after school to help. Incredibly, 4.6 million tiny plants carefully wrapped in spraghum moss and wax paper were shipped in long rectangular boxes last spring.
“For two months (in the spring) we work like dogs,” says Hudson of the Steele family business started by his wife’s father, school teacher Dudley “Butch” Sanders and his partner Claude Steele.
The other full time employee is Ken Sanders, his brother in law, but family pictures around the office bear testament to a flock of part-time helpers of three generations.
Sanders says the internet and the introduction of 90-day species have helped open the market up to northern parts of the country that have shorter growing seasons. Maine, for instance, is a market for both the Gleason and Martin farms.
Dellinger adds that all of the information on the nutritional qualities of the sweet potato have also boosted interest. A favorite recipe made by his wife is a muffin made with sweet potato, apple and bluebery.
In the south, Dellinger says customers favor sweet potatoes they call “red” although the most popular variety, the Beauregard, has a copper skin. Both Dellinger and Hudson, prefer the Georgia Jet for a good moist sweet taste. The farms carry about 10 or so different varieties depending on regional tastes including one that is white called the White Triumph. The two farms are certified by Tennessee state agricultural inspectors.
Betty Sue Chappell a lifelong resident of the Public Wells community in Martin concurs that the “red” potato is her favorite. She remembers that as a girl, a number of farms grew sweet potatoes and strawberries, both labor intensive crops. In the early days, horse drawn plows would break up the ground while pickers scooted down the rows scratching out the potatoes.
“Not all of them were on top of the ground,” laughs Chappell who remembers her all time record of 113 bushels in one morning. The potatoes were piled onto a middle row for a truck to pick up later.
From there, the potatoes were stored and labeled by farm in neighborhood “potato houses.”
Today farms like Steele’s store potatoes in a controlled temperature(not below 50 degrees) warehouse that can house 8-12,000 bushels at a time.
Most of the eating potatoes come from Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina, says Steele who marvels at the sight of ten four- row diggers he has seen working Louisiana fields that dwarf local one-row digger harvests.
Still if you’re in the business just to supply the plants, and not the actual sweet potatoes for restaurants and grocery stores, a one- row digger will do the job of scooping up enough seed potatoes for next year’s little green and purple shoots.
And a mechanized one-row digger is a big improvement, says Chappell, from hands scratching through the dry clay soil.