Three years ago, a group of tobacco growers who farm near the Sauratown Mountain Range in central North Carolina were looking for an alternative crop.

Although this area is far from the state’s prime sweet potato-producing region, the farmers had enough experience growing it on a small scale that they believed they could make money producing it. But they produced it as a high-quality gourmet food item rather than as a commodity.

“After the tobacco buyout, sweet potatoes grown for gourmet markets looked better than tobacco,” says McRay Greene Jr. of Walnut Cove, N.C. “We could make more per acre on gourmet sweet potatoes than tobacco.”

They were helped considerably when they learned about a local variety of sweet potato that has deep purple skin and flesh. The purple variety gave the growers a unique product to market, and they have built their program around it.

They put it in North Carolina State University’s micropropagation program to clean it of any plant viruses, paid the fee for exclusivity rights and named it Stokes Purple.

In the first year of the Saura Pride program, five growers produced 10 acres. The next year, there were 10 growers, and they planted 25 acres. Then last year, the third of the program, 16 growers produced 80 acres of sweet potatoes.

Two of the growers were in Forsyth County, one was in Surry County and the rest were in Stokes County, which surrounds the Sauratown range. All of the growers either grow tobacco now or have in the past.

Most Saura Pride sweet potatoes are Stokes Purples. But they also grow a few orange sweet potatoes of the Beauregard variety and a few white sweet potatoes of the O’Henry variety. These are mostly for local demand.

The primary marketing vehicle for Saura Pride sweet potatoes has become grocery stores, including three chains that emphasize healthy food choices — Whole Foods, Earth Fare Healthy Supermarkets and The Fresh Market. A few are also sold to grocery stores in the Sauratown area.

There are several smaller markets. Some Saura Pride sweet potatoes are sold at state farmers markets and local produce markets. Also, a few local restaurant owners like them because of the health benefits and eye appeal, says Mike Sizemore, president of the Saura Pride company.

And Saura Pride has found a new marketing method that so far has given good results. The company has started shipping orders received on the company’s website http://www.saurapride.com .

“Since October, we have shipped 2,000 pounds in 10-, 20- or 40-pound bags based on orders from the website,” says Sizemore. “We are certainly making the UPS people happy.”

But one marketing method that seemed to hold a lot of promise hasn’t worked out, at least not yet.

In 2008, the farmers arranged with a North Carolina processing company to process the Stokes Purple sweet potatoes into a puree that could be used in any recipe that called for sweet potatoes.

Cost was too high

The process worked fine, and products using the puree fared well with consumers. But the cost wound up being too high: One company wanted to use the puree to make sweet potato butter, but they had to charge $10 for a 16-ounce jar to make a profit.

“It was just too expensive,” says Sizemore. “We have discontinued the puree for now.” But they could resume making it again if the economics were to change.

In 2010, the Sauratown Mountain area enjoyed better weather than most of North Carolina and produced a bumper crop. “We produced 750,000 pounds of sweet potatoes of all three types,” says Sizemore.

“The best thing that happened here is that we got good rains right after planting,” says Sizemore. “It provided a good jump start and our sweet potatoes did well from there on. I don’t think anyone needed to irrigate.”

The yield was around 15,000 to 20,000 pounds per acre, he estimates.

“We are searching for other customers, but as it stands now, we will probably need only 80 acres again in 2011,” says Sizemore. “But we could certainly grow more.”

There are plenty of growers who would like to get in the program, he says.

“One local vineyard owner decided to get out of grapes because he couldn’t make a profit at the current price,” says Sizemore. “He is looking for a new cash crop and has approached us to see about becoming one of our growers.”

But tobacco is the primary commodity that is being replaced by sweet potatoes in the Saura area. They offer definite advantages.

“You don’t have any of the intense tobacco practices, like topping, priming and curing,” says Greene. “You have to work tobacco all summer and then haul it two hours to a delivery station. With sweet potatoes, you plant, wait 120 days, then harvest.”

Fields in the vicinity of the Sauratown Mountains tend to be small, a problem for tobacco, but no problem in gourmet sweet potatoes, he adds.

“In my particular case, it was a good choice,” says Greene. “With the high cost of fuel and the closing of many delivery stations, the profit on tobacco was getting very small. The absence of the need for curing fuel really favors sweet potatoes over tobacco. It was a no-brainer to me.”

But the Saura growers have no desire ever to grow sweet potatoes on a mass basis.“We can’t compete in growing orange sweet potatoes with farmers in eastern North Carolina,” says Sizemore. “They can produce them on a large scale.”

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