Merced County a sweet spot for sweet potatoes

November 9, 2010 

Sweet potatoes may bring to mind Thanksgiving or the deep South to most people, but in fact, Merced County is the No. 1 producer of the popular potatoes in the country.

At A.V. Thomas Produce in Atwater, the tubular vegetable reigns king. Workers in the giant packing shed clean, sort and pack potatoes for shipment all over the world.

Every kind of sweet potato -- from light-skinned potatoes almost indistinguishable from russet potatoes, to dark ruby reds -- is packed into boxes labeled Jumbo Garnets, California Sweets or Royal Flush Reds.

The company got its start in 1960, when Azores native Antonio Vieira Tomas started farming 10 acres of the potatoes. He built a tiny packing shed in downtown Livingston, and the produce company never looked back.

Although Tomas grew all kinds of vegetables, his nephew, Manuel E. Vieira, changed to only sweet potatoes when he bought the company from his uncle in 1977.

Atwater and Livingston boast ideal ground for growing sweet potatoes -- light and sandy. According to David Robinson, agricultural commissioner for Merced County, California as a whole is the second-largest producer of sweet potatoes in the U.S., and Merced County is the No.1 sweet potato-producing county in the country. About 80 percent of the state's production is located in Merced County, mostly because of a long growing season, good irrigation and sandy soil.

Brian Escobar, director of organic operations for A.V. Thomas, said the producer is starting to focus on organic sweet potatoes as an attractive niche market for growers. The company itself grows only organic potatoes, but it also packs for nonorganic growers.

"The organics have gone crazy," Escobar said. "We ship all over the country, and into the United Kingdom and Canada."

And those organic sweet potatoes come in slightly different packaging from regular potatoes, Escobar said. Some of the potatoes are individually wrapped, pre-washed and ready to pop in a microwave. For bigger families, the organic spuds come in a six-pack that is also microwave-ready. And the tray can be composted or recycled.

"We wanted to do something a little different, something outside the comfort zone of what growers have done in the past," Escobar said.

The cooking time for the individually wrapped potatoes is only about six minutes.

With the harvest of sweet potatoes, which started in July, almost over, A.V. Thomas Produce is working around the clock, not just to pack the potatoes, but to let consumers know sweet potatoes are a healthy choice.

"It used to be the holidays when people would buy sweet potatoes," Escobar said. "Now they are looking for healthy food, and are eating sweet potatoes on just a regular day."

And it's uplifting to be No. 1 in something other than foreclosures.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or

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