For more information on Southern's ADA Compliance efforts, please visit our Accessibility Page

POPLAR GROVE — The new sweet-potato storage and distribution facility here will soon be identified with a sign for “Arkansas Delta Yams,” manager Cindy Neal said. Although sweet potatoes and yams are two unrelated plants, many U.S. sweet potatoes are marketed as “yams.”
“Our motto will be ‘Yam Good Potatoes,’” Neal said.
On Friday, the second day of packing, workers began the process by dumping 20-bushel wooden crates full of sweet potatoes into a large vat of water. Pulled along on a conveyer belt, the sweet potatoes were then scrubbed and sprayed with fresh water. About 30 part-time workers busily removed sprouts and root hairs and diverted jumbosized and No. 2-grade processing potatoes — those that are small, misshapen or blemished — into special bins.
Neal said efforts already are under way to double the 37,000-square-foot facility’s storage capacity to 220,000 bushels in time for next year’s crop, using a grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic Development Administration and matching funds from the Arkansas Department of Economic Development.
“We’d like to expand annually until we reach 500,000 bushels,” she said.
Sweet potatoes were a $298 million crop in 2006, according to the USDA, which tracks sweet-potato production in nine states. North Carolina led the nation with about 40 percent of the about 90,000 acres that were planted. California, Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama rounded out the top five sweet-potato producing states.
Arkansas farmers planted about 2,850 acres of sweet potatoes this year, according to the State Plant Board’s “green-tag” program, which certifies that sweet potatoes are free of weevils and thus eligible for interstate sale.
Four farmer-members of Arkansas Delta Produce Marketing Association LLC in Phillips and Lee counties are storing potatoes in the new facility. The company leases the building, which can store 110,000 bushels of sweet potatoes in seven climate-controlled bays. Two of the association’s farmers — Harvey Williams and Ben Anthony — worked on the packing line Friday to fill an order for Charlie Friedman, president of Oak Grove, La.-based Friedman & Broussard Produce Co.
Knowing they would have a storage facility this year, Arkansas Delta Produce’s farmers increased their production to 385 acres, up from 230 acres last year, Williams said. The first potatoes were stored in the building during the first week of September, and the last 2007 potatoes should be harvested this week, he said.
Because of this year’s drought in North Carolina, Mississippi and Alabama, Friedman said a short crop of sweet potatoes is expected. Arkansas Delta Produce’s “whole crop is obligated,” Williams said.
“This is one of the nicest sweet-potato facilities you’ll find,” Friedman said.
He flew to Poplar Grove on Friday to oversee the purchase of 1,000 40-pound boxes of No. 1 fresh-market sweet potatoes, enough to fill one semitrailer. Each year Friedman buys about 700,000 boxes of Beauregard variety sweet potatoes from about 12 packing centers in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi. He sells the produce to chain stores and large wholesalers throughout the Northeast and Midwest and to overseas buyers.
“They’ve got a real opportunity here,” Friedman said, referring to the new facility and Arkansas’ favorable growing conditions for sweet potatoes.
Friedman said he plans to buy more sweet potatoes from Arkansas Delta Produce as long as the farmers and packers deliver a premium sweet potato.
“Once they know what I want, they won’t see me too often.”
Located between Helena-West Helena and Marvell in Phillips County, the $2.1 million building was constructed by the Central Arkansas Resource Conservation and Development Council, a Conway-based nonprofit dedicated to rural development in 10 central Arkansas counties.
Also grading sweet potatoes on Friday was Bill Mulkey, an agronomist and sweet-potato expert who lives in Oak Grove, La. Mulkey, 65, a Cabot native who is retired from Louisiana State University, has been working several years with Arkansas Delta Produce’s farmers to improve their yields. This year they harvested a bumper crop, averaging 400 50-pound bushels of sweet potatoes per acre, Williams said.
Mulkey also helped the Resource Conservation and Development Council design the storage and distribution facility.