Sweet home Louisiana: sweet potatoes are a passion for Charles Kennedy Sr. and family

Sweet home Louisiana: sweet potatoes are a passion for Charles Kennedy Sr. and family – 100 Years Of Successful Farming

Andy Sacks

On a crisp, fall morning in Louisiana, Charles Kennedy Sr. gives the crew on his two-row Potato digger a pep talk. He’s teaching some new workers about grading Beauregard sweet potatoes. He wants them to be able to decide–in less than a second–if that pink chunk of carbohydrates and sugars rolling past them on a conveyor belt will make an average #2 canning potato, or if, under the dirt and the vines, it’s good enough to be graded #1 and sent to the money-making crate.

The ugliest, stubby, half-grown culls are easy to recognize, even by the newcomers. They are left to run the entire length of the conveyor belt and spilt right back to the earth where they will be plowed under.

It’s the distinctions between the #1s and #2s that Charles Sr. wants to communicate to the 12 workers this morning on the digger. He holds up two markedly different potatoes and asks them about their mothers standards. “Would your mama pick this one or this one? You know she will pick the prettiest, the smoothest, and the straightest potato off that rack at the grocery store. Just picture yourself at a grocery store when you pick up a potato and you look at it. Ask yourself, ‘Will I buy this potato?’ Would you buy this potato and bring it home to your mama? And if you wouldn’t buy it, then you know it doesn’t go in that #1 box out here on the digger.”

Taste it with their eyes

It’s a short lesson in consumer buying habits and packinghouse grading, taught while the harvester is turning into a new row. Charles Sr. knows his customers, like all consumers, taste the product first with their eyes, before they make a decision to buy.

Normally, Charles Sr., a 55-year-old farmer, would leave the labor to the laborers and entrust the crew of 12 to the care of a few experienced workers. He’s got farms to manage. But this morning the crop is running below average both in quality and quantity. His intuition tells him the best use of his time is working right here, sorting #1s and #2s with the hourly help. He’s no stranger to hand labor and works right alongside them for an hour.

Charles Sr. was born in Oak Grove, in West Carroll Parish, Louisiana. He grew up in this northeast corner of the state, where its borders join Arkansas and Mississippi. Ills parents had their own farm, but he also worked for the neighbors. Farm production 50 years ago used some basic technology. While President Eisenhower was building the interstate highway network, the Kennedy family farm relied on mules and muscles.

Young cotton picker

Charles Sr. recounts those days. “When I got to the age of 5, I began to walk alongside my morn and pick cotton and put it in her sack. I got pretty good at it, so she gave me my own little personalized 25-pound sack–a flour sack. I would fill that up, which they would then load up to a 50-pound burlap sack. And it was fun. I was about 6-years-old.

“Then from about my eighth year, I got the 7-foot sack, and that is what we would pick cotton in. Then I moved from there to the 9 foot,” he recalls.

Work suited the young man. It made him happy, and he found his way.

“At about age 10, I was pitching hay. That’s where I got my first job for 40 cents an hour–big bucks.” At 14, he worked at a cotton gin.

“I used to walk 5 miles out to the cotton gin and work until 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, but the guy that owned the gin would bring me home. After I walked to work for a week, the next week he was picking me up and driving me both ways. I stopped asking Dad for anything. My school materials, I worked for it. Even my class ring and all my graduation materials I worked for and bought it all myself.”

As a young adult Charles Sr. worked in farming and industry in the South and the Midwest. He spent some time in Chicago, Illinois, where he realized which life he favored.

“Even though I ran from the farm, city life was too fast for me, so I came back to the farm. When I drove up to Chicago, my, I thought those people were crazy the way they drive. I couldn’t take that; people just live too fast for me. You come from a horse-and-buggy day and then go to Chicago, well, hey.”

Looking for a break

Returning to Louisiana in 1975, Charles Sr. started working for a local farmer, Fred Bolding. Over the next 10 years, he became an important part of the Bolding operation but yearned to get out on his own.

A visit to the area FHA to see about financing his own place wasn’t successful. Officials wouldn’t even give him an application until Bolding let them know that he approved of Charles Sr.’s plans. With his boss’ blessing, Charles Sr. completed an application and got the loan.

Charles Sr. started by growing 155 acres of soybeans and milo in 1985, plus 10 acres of sweet potatoes. It wasn’t long before he realized that the 10 acres of potatoes were earning more profit than the beans and milo combined, so he added 10 more acres of sweet potatoes. Then 50 more.

Before the term became popular, he was direct marketing–loading up his truck the night before and heading out at 4:00 a.m. on a route that covered 340 miles. His customers were supermarkets and country produce stands. But fighting the traffic was a hassle, and after five years of marketing his own product, he got off the road.

Now he relies on sweet potato brokers to handle those tasks. With a packing shed he put up in 2000, he now recoups some of the pencil shrink he lost to the middlemen who both packed and marketed his potatoes.

Sweet potato addict

Sweet potatoes are a tricky crop. They are actually planted twice during a season that spans nine months. Like any successful farmer, Charles Sr. is devoted to the business, and his family knows it–particularly Barbara, whom he married in 1996. “It didn’t take me long to learn the operation,” she says. “I am married to a man who talks sweet potatoes during the day, talks sweet potatoes at night, and everywhere we go. Even on vacation, he is talking about sweet potatoes, so I am picking up everything.”

Sweet potatoes flourish as a tropical crop and were introduced into Europe in the sixteenth century. Experts at the Louisiana State University (LSU) sweet potato research station in Chase, Louisiana, study and gather seed stock from varieties in New Zealand, New Guinea, and the Polynesian Islands of the South Pacific.

High in vitamin A and beta carotene, the starchy tuber contains complex sugars that make the food friendly to diabetics.

Growing the crop is a two-stage process. Louisiana producers bed seed potatoes early in the spring. They plant whole potatoes in shallow soil and cover them with protective plastic that helps warm the seedbed.

Each seed potato grows enough foliage for about l0 production plants. The foliage is cut just above the roots, and these vital stalks are transplanted in another field. The node on the stem where leaves develop will also produce the fibrous roots that the plant uses to take hold in its new home.

Each plant will set out roots and translocate sugars and starches produced by the leaves to the root system. Ideally, five or six roots turn into storage tanks for the sugar and starch and grow into sweet potatoes.

Researcher Mike Cannon of LSU says that weather is the key factor to growing sweet potatoes in Louisiana. “Unlike the growers in California, we depend entirely on rainfall for our water supply. California has other disadvantages–the cost of land, the high cost of labor–but when they need water, they irrigate. Last year in Louisiana, we couldn’t control our water. We had two hurricanes, and our sweet potato crop was mostly ruined.”

Charles Sr. puts in about 200 acres of sweet potatoes and farms in cooperation with his son, Charles Jr., who joined him in 1993.

After some recent bad seasons, Charles Jr. has cut back on his own enterprise and now has 50 acres in potatoes. They share equipment and pack their potatoes in the shed Charles Sr. built.

In an average year, when all the pieces fit together, Louisiana sweet potato growers can earn about $400 per acre from their crop, according to Mike Cannon. The Kennedys say they can do a lot better in some years but have seen much worse. “Last year, I had a neighbor who didn’t dig one potato,” Charles Jr. recalls.

Working with hired workers

After weather, labor may be the biggest challenge to the Kennedy operation. The cost of labor for transplanting and field grading during harvest accounts lot about 50% of input costs. Charles St. handles a large group of harvest workers.

“I used to get upset dealing with hired labor, but I have learned to have more patience with them and try to approach people with a little nicer attitude,” he says. “I am learning that maybe raising your voice about this or that, it doesn’t really work. Being nice a lot of the time doesn’t really work either, but I have learned to deal with the people I have to work with.

“I give people in this region that want to work and need to work a chance. Even though sometimes we have to put up with the hassles of new employees, as the season goes on and harvest goes on, it gets better.”

Uncertain future

The last few difficult seasons, coupled with their lender’s decreased tolerance for risk, have dimmed the Kennedys view of the future.

Charles Jr., 33 years old with four young children of his own, puts it this way: “The backbone of agriculture–the family farm–is really under stress. This is what’s happening right now. I know 10 sweet potato farmers here that went out of business this year. In West Carroll Parish, 20 more. Due to the two hurricanes, Isador and Lily, a lot of them were tired of fighting the system, and the weather did them in.

“It’s important to me to keep our family farm going. Once the family name is gone, a part of history is gone. Future generations wouldn’t know that the Kennedy family was even involved in agriculture,” he says.

Expansion is a methodical process for the family, with plans tempered and delayed by the bad years every farmer endures and problems in getting timely financing.

The Kennedys would like to build a cold storage facility to complement the packing line. Plans for a soul food restaurant and companion motel have evolved into a sweet potato pie bakery.

“We did a feasibility study on the restaurant and found out that a bakery would be less expensive,” Charles Sr. says. “We can expand into a restaurant later.”

Noticing the school system didn’t have a sweet potato pie on their menu, the Kennedys figured they could bake the little cupcake pies and 9-inch pies. “That also would give some people jobs,” says Charles Sr.

Beyond that, Charles Sr. hopes to turn the farm over to his son. But he’ll never lose his affection for work and the land. He can’t. It’s in his blood.

“When nay dad was 86,” Charles Sr. recalls, “he turned to me one day and said, ‘I know I’m old, but if I had a couple mules, I wonder if I couldn’t scratch me up a little truck patch. I would grow some butter beans and sweet corn–just to have something to do.'”

Sweet potato pie, oh my!

Of course, a sweet potato farm would have great sweet potato recipes. Andernetta Kennedy (Charles Jr.’s wife) shams two favorites.

Sweet Potato Pie

1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes,

peeled and cut up

1 pastry for single-crust pie

3/4 cup sugar

2 teaspoons all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Dash ground cloves

2 eggs, slightly beaten

cup butter, melted

1 5-ounce can evaporated milk

Step 1: Cook sweet potatoes in

lightly salted boiling water 20 to 25

minutes or until tender. Drain and

mash (about 2 cups).

Step 2: Line a 9-inch pie plate with

a pastry for single-crust pie.

Step 3: Combine sweet potato,

sugar, flour, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg,

cloves. Add eggs; beat lightly.

Add butter and milk; stir until combined.

Place in pastry-lined pie plate.

Step 4: Cover edge of the pie with

foil. Bake at 375[degrees] for 25 minutes.

Remove foil. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes

more or until a knife comes out

clean. Cool. Cover and refrigerate

within 2 hours. Makes 8 servings.

Sweet Potato Brownies

1 cup butter or margarine

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 teaspoons vanilla

1 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 cups finely shredded, peeled

sweet potato (8 ounces)

1 cup chopped pecans

Step 1: Preheat oven to 350[degrees].

Grease a 13x9x2-inch baking pan.

Step 2: Beat butter with a mixer on

medium/high for 30 seconds. Add

sugar and beat until well combined.

Step 3: Beat in eggs, vanilla, and

salt. Beat in as much flour as you

can with mixer. Stir in remaining

flour, sweet potato, and nuts.

Step 4: Spread in pan. Bake 40

minutes or until toothpick comes out

clean. Cool. Cut into 32 bars. Option:

Drizzle with powdered sugar icing.

See more!

To see a slide show with more of Andy Sacks’ beautiful photographs from this farm, visit our Centennial Celebration Web site at www.agriculture.com/100 years/.

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