Merced Sun Star (CA)
By Joshua Emerson Smith
When Antonio Vieira Thomas proposed to sell his sweet potato business in 1977 to his nephew Manuel, it was a modest operation in downtown Livingston.
Manuel Vieira, now 67, remembers driving a tractor on his uncle’s farm, which had one building and one packing line.
“I was a farm worker,” said the Azores native. “I was working the field. It was a very small business. But with hard work, very good people working with us and the grace of the good Lord, why not?”
Today, AV Thomas Produce, relocated west of Atwater, is one of the largest organic sweet potato growers in- the country, with roughly 4,000 acres of certified organic farmland.
With 25 buildings total, eight packing lines, and up to 900 employees at peak season, the company said it’s grown to be the biggest sweet potato and yam operation in California.
The company started growing organic sweet potatoes in 1988 as an experiment on a small plot of land. By 2005, more than half of all production was certified organic.
“It was just the beginning of the organic world, but people always try to eat healthier,” Vieira said. “And there was the idea. Why not grow organic sweet potatoes so the people in general can have healthier food?”
For the last three years, AV Thomas Produce has grown only organic sweet potatoes and yams, selling directly to a wide variety of grocery stores, including Safeway, Costco and Whole Foods.
There’s been a “huge” increase in business over recent years, said Brian Escobar, head of organic operations. “One reason is 10 years ago the big chain stores didn’t have organic or they had very little, especially in a commodity like sweet potatoes,” he said. “Now you can go pretty much in any grocery store and get both, conventional and organic.”
While growing certified organic can be challenging and often produce smaller harvests, consumers have been willing to pay higher prices to eat chemical-free food.
With the staggering economy, the price the company gets for its organic produce has recently dropped, Escobar said. But, at the same time, improved farming techniques have boosted yields and brought down the cost of production.
“When we first started we used a lot of organic fertilizers, but the cost was really high on those,” he said. “We’re relying less on those fertilizers and relying more on our sustainable methods of farming, basically.”
Attention needed with organic growing
On a brisk winter day in December, Field Supervisor Jorge Gutierrez drives around in large pickup truck, overseeing the application of chicken manure.
“Organic you need to go step by step,” he said. “Don’t miss any step. You miss a step, you will pay later. Organic is one chance. No mistakes.”
Gutierrez, now 44, has worked for AV Thomas since he was 17, growing both conventional and now organic-certified sweet potatoes and yams. “Conventional is no problem,” he said. “You spray. It kills the bugs; get another strong pesticide and spray it and kill it. But not in organic.”
With organic farming, the plants need to be tended to almost every day, he said. “The plants can tell you what’s going on.”
Gutierrez believes he has “right recipe,” he said, laughing that he can’t divulge the particulars.
“We combine different formulas, like putting a little more pot ash, put a little more calcium, put a little more zinc, trying with this company, trying with this brand,” he said.
It’s more work, but in the long run it’s worth it, said Escobar, who grew up visiting his grandparent’s farm in the Azores. “Now that I think of their crop rotation practices, it’s everything that we do here,” he said. “That’s using your chicken manure, and making your compost and basic things that we do that people have done for hundreds of years. And it works.”
For now, growing organic certified sweet potatoes and yams makes not only financial but ethical sense for Vieira. “I’m not saying there’s something wrong with conventional food because there’s been so many rules, so many more regulations to make food a lot more safer,” he said.
“But if it can be even safer, why not?”
Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or [email protected]