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Vick Family Farms expands storage, adds bagging

WILSON, NC — Lyndon B. Johnson, the legendary master of the U.S. Senate, used to say that the time to make friends is before you need them. And the time to expand farming operations is before you need more space. That’s the approach Vick Family Farms here took last year, when spring rains foreshortened the 2013 sweet potato harvest. The family corporation invested in a new storage facility for year-round sweet potatoes and a bagging machine to spur consumer demand.

The move paid off.VICK11214-EXPORTIn the packinghouse at Vick Family Farms, a growing share of the 2014 sweet potato harvest is being exported overseas. These cartons, with Süßkartoffeln printed on them — German for 'sweet potatoes' — are being shipped to Amsterdam for German markets. Vick added 22,000 square feet of refrigerated storage space and was able to accommodate the back-to-normal abundance of the 2014 sweet potato harvest. The new storage facility gives Vick the ability to store 600,000 bushels on site, according to Hunter A. S. Rascoe, packinghouse and food-safety manager. Rascoe said the added capacity enables Vick to offer cured sweet potatoes year-round.

“Vick Family Farms cures its sweet potatoes for seven to 10 days at temperatures of 80 to 85 degrees with 80-90 percent humidity,” he said. “Curing causes sugar-creating enzymes to develop that make sweet potatoes taste sweet. After curing, we store the potatoes at 55-60 degrees for the rest of the year until the new crop is harvested.”

The bagging machine, added in the last year, puts sweet potatoes into three-pound bags. Experience shows, Rascoe said, some supermarket consumers prefer to buy their sweet potatoes in bags rather than pick them from a bin, especially for the Thanksgiving holidays. “Right now our bagging machine runs at capacity for the holidays,” he observed, “but we hope it will steadily build into more consistent business throughout the year.”  

Food safety is a key concern, and Rascoe said each sweet potato bin is labeled so that its contents can be traced back to the field where they grew and the workers who were involved. The cartons contain labels that show when they were processed and by which workers, along with the bin number. “We track crop rotation, pesticide and fertilizer applications and harvesting crews,” Rascoe said. “Once a year we have a mock recall, where we check on traceability from the retailer back to the field.”

In the packinghouse, where skilled fork-lift drivers expertly jockey their loads from one point to another, some experienced workers have nine years’ tenure on the job. In addition to the bagging machine, other evidence of consumer preference can be found. For example, sweet potatoes are sized, and those too big or too small — or which have too weird a shape to appeal to retail consumers — are relegated to canneries, french fry factories, puree manufacturers or pet food pellets.

Rascoe noted that a sizable percentage of the cartons shipped have Süßkartoffeln printed on them — German for “sweet potatoes” — because they are destined for the growing export market. In any language, Vick Family Farms anticipates consumer demand, making friends before they are needed.