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Vick Family Farms foresees strong sweet potato crop in 2019

Jerome and Diane Vick began Vick Family Farms in 1975 with 25 acres and a lot of ambition. Since its humble beginnings, the company has grown into a leader in the sweet potato industry, always at the forefront of technology, service and quality.

“Over the years, they grew their business mainly because of the work ethic they both had,” said Charlotte D. Vick, partner and head of marketing for the Wilson, NC-based company. “They both were smart business partners and knew in order to be successful they had to work hard themselves and put as much of their profits back into the business as they could. They were always very realistic and never tried to grow too fast.”

IMG 0150Vick Family Farms packs and ships approximately one million bushels of sweet potatoes year-round and exports nearly 60 percent of its crop into Europe. Their strategy was to grow different crops and diversify, but they also put a lot of focus into quality. They wanted to set their business apart from others by having a top-notch operation and when someone drove into the farm they could tell by the cleanliness and organization that they cared about what they did. 

Today, the company packs and ships approximately one million bushels of sweet potatoes year-round and export nearly 60 percent of its crop into Europe. 

“The health craze seems to still be popular and definitely helps our industry,” Vick said. “Also, the export market continues to grow as people learn how to prepare sweet potatoes and the nutritional benefits from them.”

After some years of struggle with sweet potatoes, caused by a combination of weather and oversupply, things seem to be shaping up for a good crop this year for Vick Family Farms.

“Different parts of North Carolina — and from what I hear in the industry all over the United States — are seeing some good quality sweet potatoes all the way to very poor quality. We were very fortunate on our farm to be far enough North that we didn’t receive the 20-plus inches of rain south of our area received,” Vick said. “We have seen very good quality so far and hope that will continue with what we have in storage.”

Growers in North Carolina have a difficult time harvesting sweet potatoes due to the soil types. On top of that there hasn’t been much innovation — in techniques or equipment — that has made major progress in being able to harvest efficiently while not damaging or skinning the potato during harvest.

“Some people use machines but I would really like to see this improve over the next few years to help with the rising labor cost we are facing,” Vick said. “Our farm hand-harvests 100 percent of our crop. With the high labor rates and immigration issues we are facing labor is the only place we can reduce cost in the future.”

Labor remains a challenge due to the rising labor cost, as well as the availability of good quality labor.

“No one wants to work anymore, and that is the major challenge our farm is facing,” Vick said. “We used to have pretty consistent packing facility employees; however, today that is not the case. No one wants to work. We have invested a lot of money into more mechanization in our packing houses but it still takes manual labor on most of these machines.”

Packaging for sweet potatoes has remained about the same for the last few years. Vick said that value-added products are still available, but not growing at a very fast pace, though she sees a lot of sweet potato fries, noodles, chips and powders on the market and most restaurants now offer a sweet potato somewhere on their menus.

Moving deeper into 2019 the company is excited to be entering a new season with lots of opportunities for growth.

“We offer a small organic line now and hope that it will continue to grow in 2019-20,” Vick said.