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Farm Pak celebrates 50th anniversary

fiftyanni Farm Pak Products is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a new look to its brand and a revamped website.

Johnny Barnes, president of the company, said his parents, Carson and Maxine Barnes, began growing sweet potatoes on three/eights of an acre in 1961. By the end of the decade, they had increased to several hundred acres and launched Farm Pak Products as a sister company to the growing end, Barnes Farming.

Today, Johnny Barnes and head salesman Jose (Pepe) Calderon are a bit coy about quantifying the size of the operation. “We represent about 15,000 acres in sweet potatoes,” Calderon said.

Barnes allowed that Farm Pak is one of the larger sweet potato growers in the county, and one of the largest exporters of the item, with the United Kingdom being its biggest customer. He said a good amount of the credit for increasing exports goes to the NCDA (North Carolina Department of Agriculture),The NCSPC (North Carolina Sweet potato commission) and ASPMI (American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute) a National Collaborator , of which he is the president/chairman. With the help of funds from the USDA’s Market Access Program, the institute has launched sweet potato promotion programs around the world, according to Barnes, including in Western Europe, Canada, Mexico, Thailand, Romania and the Dominican Republic.

Barnes Farming also produces other crops including watermelons, cantaloupes, honeydews, cabbage, broccoli, peanuts, and persimmons on the fresh side, and wheat and soybeans as field crops. Though, it is the sweet potato that is the company’s signature item.

Barnes joined the family farming operation after graduating from North Carolina State University in 1987 with a degree in agricultural economics. He had thoughts about pursuing other opportunities in the industry, but did come back to the farm, where he had worked during summers throughout high school and college. “Let’s just say dad was very persuasive,” he said.

Initially, his father allowed him to earn his stripes on some of the “less important” operations of the farm, including cucumbers and the grain program. “Over time, I took over different sections of the company. In 2012 was the year I had full control but always under his guidance,” he said.

The elder Barnes continued to work until he died in 2017. Barnes said the company has experienced tremendous growth in the past decade and continues on that trajectory. Calderon said per capita, sweet potato consumption in the United States has doubled in less than a decade and continues to climb.

Organic sweet potato production and consumption is also on the rise with Barnes Farming and Farm Pak adding organics to its mix in 2004. “It now accounts for 10 percent of production,” Calderon said.

Most of the company’s sweet potato sales come from the traditional 40-pound carton, but Calderon said they also get significant sales from its net bags and the microwavable, value-added pack. Barnes Farming grows its sweet potato crop during the late-spring to summer period with harvest beginning in late-August and lasting through Mid November. The product is then sold from storage throughout the year. Calderon said the 2019 storage crop is holding up well and should last until the new crop is ready to sell in late summer.

Sales of foodservice and process grade (French fries) sweet potatoes have lagged behind with the closing of restaurants during the coronavirus pandemic, but Calderon is hopeful that sales will pick up as the country reopens. He noted that sweet potatoes must cure and store for a couple of months before they are ready to hit market so there is still plenty of time to sell the 2019 inventory before it butts up against 2020 production.

Joshua Barnes, Johnny’s son, started working for the company full-time about three years ago as the family keeps its legacy going. Barnes said his son is in charge of the sweet potato storage facility and the greenhouse operations where it grows its seedlings for transplant. He also oversees the organic Japanese persimmon program. Barnes said that he is bringing his son along a bit faster than his father advanced him.

The company’s packing facilities are deeply rooted in the heart of North Carolina’s sweet potato growing region, near I-95 in Nash County. Farm Pak provides sweet potatoes for grocery, wholesaler, and foodservice outlets across the country, with its four packing lines, as well as one of the most modern vegetable packing plants in the United States.

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