Rebecca Scott is grower accounting and marketing director for Nash Produce, a grower-owned packer/shipper of sweet potatoes and cucumbers based in Nashville, North Carolina. Nash Produce is the largest supplier of organic sweet potatoes in North Carolina and one of the top suppliers of organic sweet potatoes in the US. Rebecca joined OPN to talk about Nash’s organic program, why North Carolina sweet potatoes are so tasty, and more.
Can you give us some background on Nash Produce, particularly in terms of your organic program?
Beginning in 1977, what is now Nash Produce was a small farming operation known as Dale Bone Farms. The company started as a cucumber grower and then added sweet potatoes to its lineup in 1978. In 2006, a group of North Carolina farmers recognized the need for a distribution facility, so they purchased the operation and formed Nash Produce.
Rebecca Scott, Grower Accounting and Marketing Director, Nash Produce
In the early 2000s, the produce industry was recognizing a rise in demand for organically grown products. Our growers responded to that need, and by 2010, Nash Produce was offering locally grown organic sweet potatoes to customers. Today, our current grower base dedicates more than 1,000 acres to organic sweet potatoes.
A major feature that makes Nash Produce unique is that we are a company entirely owned by sweet potato and cucumber growers. There is a sense of true community knowing that every sweet potato and cucumber that leaves our facility is grown by owners, friends, and family who have been with the company for many generations. All of our sweet potato growers are located within a 60-mile radius of our facility.
“In the early 2000s, the produce industry was recognizing a rise in demand for organically grown products. Our growers responded to that need, and by 2010, Nash Produce was offering locally grown organic sweet potatoes to customers. Today, our current grower base dedicates more than 1,000 acres to organic sweet potatoes.” -Rebecca Scott
Can you tell us about North Carolina organic sweet potatoes and what makes them special?
Sweet potatoes grow extremely well in North Carolina as our well-drained, sandy loam soil and hot, humid climate during the growing season allow for many different sweet potato varieties to yield optimal-sized potatoes.
A majority of sweet potatoes grown in our region are of the Covington variety, one that was discovered right down the road at North Carolina State University. The Covington’s combination of the perfect size, texture, and taste when grown in North Carolina conditions have made it an instant favorite with consumers.
Nash Produce organic sweet potatoes
What varieties of organic sweet potatoes do you sell, and what product formats (loose, bagged, etc.) do you offer?
We currently provide organically grown Covington sweet potatoes, a variety which I just mentioned that is one variety of the traditional orange-colored sweet potatoes that consumers are most familiar with. They are offered loose, in 40-pound boxes, and bagged in 3- and 5-pound mesh packages for customer convenience.
We also offer alternative packaging options such as individually wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes and 3- or 4-count tray packs. The current organic market has not yet utilized these options, but we feel that with the way it is growing, retail locations may be looking at them very soon!
Nash Produce 3lb organic sweet potatoes
What are some of the biggest challenges that your organic sweet potato growers face?
Like many other agricultural commodities, the impact of increased labor wages takes a toll on our grower base. Sweet potatoes and cucumbers are crops that rely heavily on manual labor, and without a reliable workforce, production is impossible. Weather is ultimately our largest challenge as it is something we cannot predict nor can we control. All of our grower base is located in the eastern region of the state, where hurricanes are all too common during harvest season.
What is the demand like for organic sweet potatoes?
The organic market is relatively new—and steadily growing—so we are seeing positive changes on a yearly basis. Sweet potatoes have risen in popularity based on the proven health benefits they provide. There is genuinely no downside to enjoying sweet potatoes as they are packed with beta-carotene (a key component for building immunity), potassium, and many essential vitamins and minerals. Their natural sweetness is also beneficial for consumers with health problems such as diabetes, for example. In fact, diabetic patients that consume sweet potatoes on a routine basis improve their blood sugar levels!
“Like many other agricultural commodities, the impact of increased labor wages takes a toll on our grower base. Sweet potatoes and cucumbers are crops that rely heavily on manual labor, and without a reliable workforce, production is impossible.” -Rebecca Scott
How is this year’s organic sweet potato crop looking?
Our team of organic sweet potato growers began harvesting their 2020 crop around Labor Day and will continue to do so until roughly early December. North Carolina has received a string of unseasonably cooler weather that has caused the potatoes to mature to optimal size at a slower pace than usual, but even still the crop is sizing up well, and we are optimistic for a great season.
Nash Produce organic sweet potatoes
In addition to your organic sweet potato program, you offer organic pickling cucumbers. Can you tell us a bit about that program as well?
Our pickling cucumber facility is the largest in the country! We operate two large grading lines seasonally from May to July. In 2017, we gained our USDA organic certification and welcomed organically grown cucumbers into our program.
“North Carolina has received a string of unseasonably cooler weather that has caused the potatoes to mature to optimal size at a slower pace than usual, but even still the crop is sizing up well, and we are optimistic for a great season.” -Rebecca Scott
How has the coronavirus crisis been affecting your organic business?
COVID-19 has impacted our world so greatly these past few months. Each week has provided its own modifications to our “normal” day-to-day schedule, but we are starting to see things shifting back to a more routine structure. We have seen an increase in movement of pre-packaged items, such as our mesh bags, as consumers strive to buy in bulk while reducing their frequency of trips to retail locations.
Nash Produce sweet potato products
What are Nash Produce’s plans for the future, particularly as it relates to your organic operation?
We are optimistic for continued growth in demand for organic sweet potatoes and organic cucumbers due to a rise in overall produce consumption. As a company, we hope to continue our relationships with both our customers and our grower base, and we will continue expanding our facilities to accommodate for growth and advancement. We have actually grown rather substantially this year alone!
Over the past few months, we have been working on several projects that will allow us to enhance and expand many stages of our production. These include the launch of a personalized transportation management system to improve logistics efficiency, the addition of a new bagging system to our current packing machinery, the purchase of a new bulk loader and scale, and the construction of additional temperature-controlled storage buildings.