Watkins Farm, a family-owned operation based in Granville County, North Carolina, has been rapidly expanding its organic sweet potato acreage ever since it began growing the organic root vegetable eight years ago.
“We started out as a tobacco farm in 1955,” says third-generation Co-Owner Randall Watkins. “My granddaddy passed the farm to my dad, and now I co-own the farm with my dad. We added conventional sweet potatoes in 2013, so we could give more work to our farmworkers.”
Randall Watkins, Co-owner, Watkins Farm, stands in the middle of one of his organic sweet potato fields
Watkins says a neighbor of his encouraged him to pursue organic certification, so in 2015 he started growing organic sweet potatoes on just 10 acres. “I knew that organic farming was healthier and that it also would give me the opportunity to grow more,” he says, referring to the increasing demand for organic produce.
"I knew that organic farming was healthier and that it also would give me the opportunity to grow more." - Randall Watkins
Watkins’ neighbor also put him in touch with Happy Dirt (then Eastern Carolina Organics), a local farmer-owned distributor. “I was really able to expand my organic production when I started working with them,” he says. “I actually became a farmer-owner in the company in 2018.”
Today, Watkins grows organic sweet potatoes on 120 acres, and he’s currently in the process of transitioning 100 acres of former tobacco land for more organic sweet potato production.
When Watkins first started growing organic sweet potatoes, he began with organic Covingtons, the main sweet potato variety in North Carolina. Then, in 2017, he added organic Garnets due to customer request.
“There aren’t many people who grow organic Garnets around here,” he says. “Garnets have a thinner skin than Covingtons, so they can be more tedious to grow. We have a loamy clay soil where I'm at, so it can be difficult to wash the thicker dirt off without it tearing some of the skin. We've fine-tuned our pack line so that it’s more gentle on the Garnets and washes them well. Also, there hasn't been a huge market for Garnets on the East Coast, so that's another reason why not many people farm them in this area. We are growing that market, though.”
Just this season, Watkins added a couple more organic sweet potato varieties to the mix, Murasakis and purples, also in response to customer demand.
“I’m always willing to try new things,” Watkins says of adding the new varieties. “It’s like when my dad decided to start building his own farm machinery in 1967. What was available to us at the time was unaffordable for small farms, so we built our own. My granddaddy always taught us to never be afraid to work on something. “
Organic purple sweet potato
While he co-owns the farm with his father, Watkins is in charge of the day-to-day growing operations. “I do a lot of the plowing and getting the organic sweet potatoes ready for harvest,” he says. “I help our farmworkers put them in the building and make sure they are tagged correctly with the day they were harvested, the variety, and the field they came out of. I’m always the first one there and the last one to leave.”
“Randall is not only one of our best farmers, but he has become a mentor, a friend, a repairman, and so much more since becoming a farmer-owner at Happy Dirt,” says Taylor Holenbeck, Happy Dirt’s grower services coordinator. "Willing to solve any problem that we throw his way, he is a vital part of the success of our business and our regional food system."
Organic Muraski sweet potato
Through Happy Dirt, Watkins sells his organic sweet potatoes to a range of customers, including some major retailers.
“Some of the bigger retailers we distribute to are Whole Foods, Sprouts, Fresh Direct, and Harris Teeter,” he says. “Restaurants like sweetgreen use our organic sweet potatoes. We also distribute to regional co-ops like Weaver Street Market, Durham Co-op Market, French Broad Food Co-op, and Deep Roots Market in North Carolina. You can find our organic sweet potatoes up and down the East Coast, and soon you’ll find them in the Midwest.”
“I’m always willing to try new things." - Randall Watkins
Over the years, Watkins says he’s seen an increase in demand for both regular and specialty organic sweet potatoes. “In North Carolina, conventional sweet potato acreage has decreased by—I think it’s 40 percent,” he says. “That hasn’t been the case for organic acreage.”
Randall Watkins holds organic Covington sweet potatoes
Watkins, who chose to stay on the family farm rather than pursue his father’s desire for him to attend NC State, says he’s drawn to farming for a number of reasons.
“I like that you can be your own boss. I also grew up helping my granddaddy and my dad on the tobacco farm, so it’s something that I’ve always enjoyed. The dirt always taught me something,” he says. “I like growing organic sweet potatoes because they are healthier for the consumer and the soil. We plan to continue to grow our acreage each year.”