Sweeter with Time
February 27, 2023
Written By Adam Buckallew
Tending to sweet potatoes has been a passion for the Matthews family since 1885
These days, it seems the sweet potato has found its way onto American dinner tables with increased frequency. No longer is the venerable vegetable simply baked and buttered or smothered with marshmallows. There’s an entire new world of sweet potato possibilities.
Search online and you’ll find recipes for pies and pancakes, soups and salads, casseroles and curries that all incorporate sweet potatoes. Americans are baking, broiling, grilling, frying, steaming and mashing their way through more pounds of potatoes per person today than they did two decades ago.
Doctors will tell you it’s because people recognize sweet potatoes as a great source of fiber, vitamins and minerals. William Brown “BB” Matthews Jr. will tell you it’s because they taste so darned good—and he should know.
BB is a fifth-generation sweet potato farmer located north of Wynne, Ark., about an hour west of Memphis. Since 1885, his family has grown what they have dubbed “Sweet Delta Diamonds,” producing roughly 20 million pounds of potatoes annually at Matthews Sweet Potato Farm.
From Tragedy to Taters
The farm may not have existed had it not been for a tragedy that took place in Mississippi nearly 150 years ago.
“My great-great-grandmother’s husband died, so her uncle, who everyone called ‘Uncle Lucky,’ offered to give her this property if she’d move up here with her kids,” BB said. “So, she moved and supposedly brought sweet potatoes with her.”
Over time, the farm and sweet potato operation grew with each new generation of the Matthews family, from BB’s great-grandfather, Samuel Doak Matthews, to his grandfather, Peter Moore Matthews, to his father and uncle, William Brown and David Moore Matthews.
“It really kicked off with my grandpa, and then my daddy and uncle took it from there,” BB said. “We were known as Matthews Brothers, working in partnership with my uncle and cousin, Terris, until about 17 years ago when we split up. Now there’s two farms: Matthews Sweet Potato Farm and Matthews Ridgeview Farms.”
Taters, But Not Tubers
While their name might suggest otherwise, sweet potatoes aren’t really potatoes at all. A member of the morning glory family, the sweet potato is technically a root vegetable, whereas the potato, a member of the nightshade family, produces true tubers.
While both crops yield underground goodies, they differ in their production. To grow potatoes, a farmer plants a “seed piece,” essentially a chunk of a potato from which a new plant will sprout and produce more tubers. Growing sweet potatoes, however, requires vegetative propagation.
“We start with G1 seed potatoes that we buy from Mississippi every year. That’s your better potato. No viruses,” BB explained. “We’ll bed those out in March and cover them with plastic. Once they sprout a plant, we take the plastic off and cover them with cloth to keep them warm and make them grow faster.”
Typically, by the second week of May, the sweet potato plants in the seed beds are ready for transplant into production fields. Farmworkers make cuttings called “slips” from the plants. BB said it takes 50-60 acres of seed potatoes to grow all the slips the farm needs to plant 1,000 acres of sweet potatoes each year.
“We’ll bed out 20,000 bushels,” he added. “That’s 1 million pounds.”
A bedding machine prepares a hill of soil for the sweet potato slips, which are cut in the morning and planted in the afternoon. BB said sweet potatoes do best in sandy loam soils, though he’s raised them in clay soils, too.
“We run three, eight-row finger transplanters,” BB said. “A crew of 16 rides each transplanter, and when we really get rolling, we can plant about 60 acres a day.”
Like other crops, sweet potatoes face pests and diseases during the growing season. BB said insects, including white grubs, whitefringed beetles and wireworms, cause the most trouble. Root-knot nematodes can also be a problem.
Sweet potato harvest usually begins in early September. The vines are mowed, and then seven to 10 days later, the potatoes are extracted from the soil using a two-row digger. The potatoes work their way up a chain conveyor to awaiting farmworkers who sort the vegetables by size, placing them in 20-bushel wooden bins. BB said yields typically hover around 400 bushels per acre.
“There’s tater varieties that actually yield better than what I’m raising, but they don’t taste the same. They don’t look the same. They aren’t what you want to raise for a baking potato,” he said. “There’s some that taste better than what I’m raising, but they’re harder to raise and harder to store, so I don’t raise them either.”
Once harvested, the bins of potatoes are taken to the farm warehouse where they will undergo a curing process. Curing promotes the healing of cuts and bruises that may have occurred during harvest. It also protects the potatoes from storage diseases and excessive shrinkage as starches are being converted into sugars. After curing, the sweet potatoes are stored in the warehouse at a temperature of 60 degrees and humidity between 85% to 90%.
“The longer they sit, the sweeter they get,” BB said, noting that when properly cured, a sweet potato can remain in storage for 14 months without issue. “It usually takes about six to eight weeks for them to cure, and then they’re ready to be sold.”
When the farm receives an order, the potatoes are brought out of storage, washed, graded and packaged. Baking sweet potatoes are graded as No. 1, No. 2 or Jumbo, which the family sells in 40-pound boxes or 3- and 5-pound bags. Those with imperfections, defects or feeding damage from field insects are designated as canning sweet potatoes.
“If it isn’t good enough for people to want to pick it up off the shelf, it’s a canner,” BB said. “With those, they’ll make all the processed products, from puree to fries.”
Sweet potatoes from the Matthews’ farm don’t all stay in Arkansas. Buyers can be found from New York to California and just about every state in between.
“When you get with a broker, there’s no telling where they’re liable to go,” BB added. “I’ve sent taters all the way up to Canada. I’ve even sent some overseas.”
While pests, disease and Mother Nature all present hurdles to sweet potato production, BB said that his biggest challenge is workforce. He relies heavily on temporary agricultural workers from Mexico.
“I hate to say it, but most people aren’t willing to do this kind of work,” he lamented. “The days are long, and it’s physical, in the elements. When we’re planting, we need 16 guys for every eight-row transplanter. When we’re digging taters, we have around 100 workers in the fields. When we’re packaging, it works best with about 20 guys. It’s tough to find enough people.”
Yet, despite the challenges, BB says he can’t imagine their family farming operation without sweet potatoes. His father, William Brown Matthews Sr., still can be found running a forklift in the warehouse, helping to load out pallets of potatoes. BB’s son, Forrest Garrett, represents the sixth generation and works side by side with his dad in all aspects of the operation.
“It’s pretty cool to get to work with them both every day,” BB said. “There aren’t a lot of folks out there who get that opportunity, so I don’t take it for granted.”