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Born in chance encounter, sweet potato chips now a hit

LUCAMA, NC — Dewey R. Scott is a self-confessed “sweet potato nerd,” so when he bumped into Stan Smith in a chance meeting in London in 2006, it was only natural that a family deal would result. “I had a bunch of sweet potatoes to sell, and Stan was looking for a family business he could get into with his family,” he recalled, “so one family business led to another.”

Scott Farms, here, is now the largest importer of sweet potatoes into the United Kingdom and Europe, and their sales office in the U.K. now accounts for more than half the total farms’ sales from sweet potatoes. Scott is vice president of sweet potato operations at Scott Farms, a sixth-generation family farm growing sweet potatoes, tobacco, wheat, soybeans and corn on 13,000 acres.

Linwood (Sonny) Scott Jr., along with his wife, Alice, and sons Linwood III and Dewey, are co-owners of the modern farming, production and packing operations. In 1983, Scott Farms began growing sweet potatoes on 15 acres; in 2017, it will harvest about 3,000 acres. With an average of 12 tons of sweet potatoes per acre, this year’s harvest could reach 72 million pounds.

Scott Farms Family 2016The Scott Farms family at Lucama, NC: Alice Scott, Sonny Scott (president), Kim Scott, Linwood Scott (vice president, farm operations), Heather Scott, and Dewey Scott (vice president, sweet potato operations).Most of the sweet potatoes exported to the U.K. will end up as Scott Farms Sweet Potato Chips, either with cheddar cheese or with orange, purple and white chips, carried by Harrod’s of London, the legendary department store. In England, they call potato chips “crisps” to differentiate them from French fries, which they call “chips.”

In 2015, the international arm, headed by Stan Smith, international chief executive officer, and his son, Darren Smith, head of operations and account management, added a line of sweet potato moonshine, spiced rum, raspberry liqueur and orangecello. The sweet potato spirits were created in copper stills. The raspberry sweet potato liqueur won an award as Best New Artisan Beverage in the World Food Innovation Awards in 2016 in London, which drew 240 entries from 25 countries.

Dewey has plans to make Scott Farms Sweet Potato Chips available in this country, but not to bring chip production in-house. “Be good at what you’re good at,” he quoted, “and we’re good at growing sweet potatoes” He noted that North Carolina has a good growing season and that the well-drained sandy loam of Eastern North Carolina is ideal for growing sweet potatoes.

A new 60,00-square-foot automated packing and shipping facility built in 2015, was a two-year, multi-million-dollar project led by Sonny Scott. It uses cameras to sort and size sweet potatoes and computer-operated packing lines with three levels of quality control. It regulates temperature at 58 degrees Fahrenheit and humidity at 80-85 percent to cure sweet potatoes, healing scratches or bruises in the skin while stopping the processing of sugar.

The ability to store sweet potatoes year-round, Dewey Scott pointed out, has led to the creation of new off-season uses for the product. Scott Farms has led the way, he said, by working with a chef to promote sweet potato ice cream.

Scott, as a leading marketer of sweet potatoes, has been head of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission and a proponent of micropropagation and serialization, or breeding and gene tracking “so that each time the sweet potato tastes the same,” as he put it.

“We’ve automated in every way we can,” he added “We use GPS-guided tractors and remote sensors tell us when to add water or nutrients. But we still pick the sweet potatoes by hand. Some things never change,” he observed.