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Garber Farms finishing sophisticated climate controlled storage system

Garber Farms in Iota, LA, has been in business for 131 years, giving the owner, Wayne Garber, some deep insight into growing issues, trends and changes throughout the years.

He explained to The Produce News that there is an aspect of growing where different crops compete for the same piece of land.

“And that is true currently,” he said. “I think we’ll see less of a tendency in the coming year or more for growers to increase their sweet potato acreage, so they will be less euphoric in their planting. As the price of sweet potatoes is dictating, we don’t need more at this point.”

With commodity crops, such as hay, corn and soy, being so badly affected by the drought in the past couple of years, and the resulting high prices of these items, there is a good chance that some sweet potato growers will switch at least a portion of their land to a crop that will pay more and require less production input.

“If prices are higher on soy or corn, it would only make sense for them to take advantage of the market opportunity,” said Mr. Garber. “It’s the swing of the pendulum: It’s either swinging in your direction or it’s swinging away from you. It is the competitive basis of land use. You have only so much acreage, and in simple terms, if you have the competitive advantage of benefiting financially from sweet potatoes, that’s the direction you go in. But remember also that sweet potatoes have a high cost of production, and growers face food-safety, traceability and other cost-related factors, so it requires more intensive management, especially compared to less intensive crops like hay or soy that aren’t going for human consumption. Growers today have to weigh all of the risks when deciding what to plant.”

Mr. Garber said that Hurricane Isaac did not affect Louisiana crops in his region, but that Southeast Louisiana and parts of Mississippi got the worst of it. The storm did give Garber Farms some welcomed rain. The company expects to have an adequate supply of high-quality sweet potatoes for a 12-month shipping season.

In mid September, the company was about 20 percent harvested.

“We should be completely harvested by the second or third week of October,” said Mr. Garber.

Garber Farms has implemented a highly sophisticated climate-controlled storage software program that is monitored in the company’s office.

“We can change storage conditions as are warranted,” said Mr. Garber. “We update and improve our refrigeration abilities on an ongoing basis. This is all about maintaining quality — which is where our strongest focus has been in the past couple of years. We’re just about completed with this new system, but we’ll continue to stay on top of any new and better developments in the future.”

Mr. Garber is the fourth generation of family members to oversee the company, and his son, Matt, is the fifth generation. The company has moved, expanded and changed its culture a couple of times over the 131 years, but it has always remained true to its founding father’s belief that hard work and dedication combine to make a successful company. The company was founded by Mr. Garber’s great-great-grandfather, Nicholas Garber, who emigrated from Switzerland in 1881.

“Nicholas worked with a mule and wagon as his marketing tools, and his six children were his staff,” said Mr. Garber.

Mr. Garber concurs with other sweet potato professionals about growing demand being spurred by nutritional and health benefits of the item.

“Sweet potatoes are rated the No. 1 healthiest food in the world,” he said. “They contain the ‘good’ sugar, not to mention beta carotene and vitamins.

“Despite this great information, prices are still soft,” he continued. “It’s all about supply and demand.”

Garber Farms offers shrink-wrapped, overwrapped trays and bags of sweet potatoes, all of which are increasing in demand every year.

“We have a really good crop with great quality and good sizes,” said Mr. Garber. “If this harvest wraps up without a problem, we’ll have a good 12-month supply.”