Eva Dawson, director of sales and food safety for Dawson Farms in Delhi, LA, told The Produce News that the company began harvesting Aug. 25, which was about three weeks earlier than normal.
“We had optimal spring weather that helped the plants to size up nicely,” said Ms. Dawson. “And we had extremely good moisture when the plants needed it, and Hurricane Isaac helped out quite a bit. These factors combined gave us a nice jump on the season.”
She added that the quality and sizing of the sweet potatoes is also very nice this year. Harvesting is expected to wrap up in mid-October, which is also early compared to normal.
“Our volume is also up and is ahead of last year, but the quality is as good as last year, which was great,” said Ms. Dawson. “We only store No. 1-size potatoes, and I am very pleased with the volumes we have going into storage, and we’re only halfway through the harvest as of now.”
Dawson Farms partners with ConAgra at the ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston processing facility, also located in Delhi. The plant opened in November of 2010.
“ConAgra takes all of our off-grade potatoes — those that don’t demand a high price in the fresh market,” Ms. Dawson explained. “We dedicate a certain amount of acreage to them, and that is beneficial to us all.”
She added that sweet potatoes are a very expensive crop to grow. It is labor intensive and has a high risk factor.
“You can’t blame folks who convert some of their acreage to commodity crops if prices of those crops are high,” she said. “We have about 1,000 acres of land in rotation at all times, which we lease out to a grower who produces crops like corn, cotton and soybeans. He reaps the benefits of the price of his crop, and we reap the benefits of land rotation.”
Dawson Farms ships its sweet potatoes west of the Mississippi River, with predominant concentration in the upper Midwest. The company constantly upgrades its facility and does regular routine maintenance on its coolers, bins and other equipment. Today, it focuses on using equipment that requires less fuel, and with fields that are a distance from the facility, it uses a flatbed service instead of trucking the product in, which saves wear and tear on equipment.
“I am also knee-deep into a software program that allows me full traceability,” said Ms. Dawson. “All I have to do is scan a bin tag and I know what day ‘you were born,’ ‘the day you were harvested,’ ‘what field you were born in’ and ‘what bin you were put in,’ as well as where the bin was put and when it was put there.
“It’s a must have today,” she continued. “We have to stay compliant with the mandates, and my attitude is that I might as well be ahead rather than trying to catch up.”
The software program Dawson Farms has implemented is “AgWare,” which is offered by ProWare Services in Plant City, FL.
“The software was installed in January and is being used for the first time with this harvest,” said Ms. Dawson.