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.”