Sweet potatoes, of course! Over the last several years sweet potatoes have seen resurgence in demand as consumers learn more about their health benefits and restaurants and markets are offering them in the form of fries to soups to mashers. Farmland dedicated to growing the sweet tuber has also increased to meet the need. Jim Alvernaz, owner of Alvernaz Farms, near Livingston says, “25 years ago California had 25,000 acres of sweet potatoes, then we dipped down to 8,000, and recently we are back up to 20,000 acres.” Jim concluded that 2014 may see another dip due to drought conditions, but, “the demand is most certainly still there.”
Jim, and his family-run cooperative, own their own packing shed and market their sweet potatoes all over the Pacific Northwest and cruise ships want them year-round. The cannery infrastructure is robust and there is a large demand for either the largest or smallest product to go to the cannery for things like baby food. The more commercially marketable size, like a baked potato size or slightly larger, will be on your grocery market produce shelf.
Jim Alvernaz has been growing sweet potatoes his whole life. His grandfather came from the Azors to Atwater where he was a sheep herder. They soon began growing sweet potatoes among other crops and Joe Alvernaz, Jim’s father, taught him everything he knows – and much of what he still does today. With some minor changes and additions, he continues to use his father’s tractor for harvesting. Though when Jim was a boy it was still all hand work. “My dad used to cut the vines by hand in the field and then head to school. It was all hand cutting till the 1950’s and I still use his original vine cutter.”
Sweet potatoes are a very labor intensive crop that requires a lot of human interaction. “The same plant can be touched by the same human hands four times from planting to harvest,” said Jim. Today, Jim runs up to a 34-person crew to plant, grow, and harvest his sweet potato crop, much of that crew returns every year. The process begins in February where the plants are raised in hot beds and ends in Ocotber at harvest (see pictorial, sweet potato production on pages 4-5).
Sweet Potato Fields Forever…
The Alvernaz Farm was conserved in 2011 with a conservation easement through Central Valley Farmland Trust (CVFT). “The Alvernez family has a special kind of passion for the land,” said Bill Martin, executive director for CVFT. “They understand the significant importance of Central Valley farmland and have gone out of their way to ensure their land will remain in agricultural production forever.” This third generation sweet potato farmer and his wife Colette, can offer their children a future on the farm. “My wife and I have nine children. They are engineers, energy traders, architects, psychologists, journalists, all sorts of good things, and one is still in school. They may not want to come back to the farm having the careers they have now, but I went to school to be a journalist and here I am,” said Jim. “But the farm is here and we have good soil. This crop is healthy and water efficient to grow, so I will keep doing it.”