Phillips County’s newest industry Delta Yams is already getting ready for an expansion and this comes after only a year of operation.

Over a million dollars has been made available through a grant of $700,000 from the U.S. Department of Commerce-Economic Development Administration and another $300,000 from the state Department of Economic Development for the expansion of Delta Yams, located on Highway 49, just west of Barton. However, that expansion’s success depends on the participation of six additional new sweet potato growers.

A large group of interested farmers attended Tuesday night’s session and were presented information on growing sweet potatoes.
Bruce Leggett of Central Arkansas RC&D praised Phillips County Judge Don Gentry for helping make the land available for Delta Yams and the Phillips County Conservation District, who has helped make the facility ‘s operation much smoother.

Leggett introduced Rex King. King is president of Arkansas AgriPac Inc., a subsidiary of Bright Harvest of Clarksville who will be handling the Delta Yams marketing strategy, after signing a five-year contract with the local facility.

Leggett added that Central Arkansas RC&D is in the business of building and starting projects and not running them. However, thanks to the growers and workers at Delta Yams they were able to grade, inspect, pack, and ship potatoes during the first year of operation.

“Now that we have made an agreement with Bright Harvest-Agri Pac. Inc. to run the facility we can get back to our original job,” stated Leggett, “which is development and expansion of projects.”

Legett contacted Bright Harvest officials in 2007 and asked them to come and look at the local facility and according to Leggett, they were impressed.

King told the growers what the company, founded in 1967 in Clarksville, does and reported that Don Kerr has been owner of the company since 1999.

“Sweet potatoes are the healthiest vegetable there is and this healthy root vegetable is now beginning to get more recognition,” said King. Some of the products Bright Harvest produces include sweet potato patties, casseroles and other sweet potato products.

“We are really excited about the prospect of growing more sweet potatoes in Arkansas and we’re here to help the sweet potato industry in the state. This will give the growers an opportunity to have their sweet potatoes go straight to the processor,” said King.

“The demand for the No.1 grade of sweet potatoes is on the increase and at least 450 to 500 additional acres are needed to meet that demand,” King said. “In fact I don’t think there is any limit to how many sweet potatoes we can take.”

When a grower brings in their potatoes its best that they have the top grade separated from other potatoes, because that’s where most of the money is, commented King.

“The bottom line is that at Kerr Industries we’re excited to be a part of this project,” added King.

“Last year we were at the learning stage in sweet potato production and marketing,” said Leggett. “As we moved along sweet potatoes of all sizes were brought into the plant.

Leggett pointed out that growers need to harvest the potatoes while they are top grade, which is not too big, not too small; in other words, almost perfect. The No. 1 grade primarily goes to grocery stores. The others, which might be a little out of shape, can be sold as canners.

New growers will be provided with a harvest crew.

Leggett said that new growers and those who can afford to plant the crops would occupy the additional space. It costs approximately $1,500 an acre to produce sweet potatoes.

“If you can’t afford that you should not be growing sweet potatoes, said Leggett.

The proposed new addition will double the facility’s storage capacity, which is currently between 110,000 and 200,000 bushels.
Earnest Bradley of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff Cooperative Extension Service, reported that few people know that only 2,500 acres of sweet potatoes are grown in Arkansas.

“Now that we have a state Department of Agriculture maybe Arkansas will finally be put on the map as far as growers go,” stated Bradley.

“If I was going to grow sweet potatoes I would first do a soil sample, because land that is good for soybeans probably won’t be as good for growing the tubers,” said Bradley. “They don’t like wet conditions, where the fields stay wet most of the time and they also like good drainage.”

“We are looking at working on grants to help buy harvesting equipment since the equipment is so high, most farmers can’t afford to buy them on their own,” said Leggett.

Jerry Coffee, also with Agripac, told the prospective growers that before they make a commitment to grow sweet potatoes they should talk to someone who is already growing sweet potatoes.

Tom Price is the manager of the Delta Yams and Phil Pratt will be the assistant manager.