Farming for gold

*State AP Wire

GRAND SALINE – Dust from Tony Phillips’ sweet potato fields fills the leather creases across the toe of his workboots. Along the soles, salt from his second job cakes the rubber bottoms.

photo by Chris Vinn for Tyler Morning Telegraph

During harvest season, he easily puts in 20 hours a day – a full night at the Morton Salt Mine and a full day in his field.

Like the dwindling number of sweet potato farmers in East Texas, he kept a second job to have a backup to the exceedingly risky farming industry.

“I’ve got to be a farmer, an accountant, a salesman and a weatherman,” Phillips said, standing outside a warehouse stacked floor to ceiling with hundreds of crates of his sweet potatoes.

By Thanksgiving, he sold half his crop to H-E-B, Walmart and the prison cannery. The rest, he said, needs to sell before Easter.

More and more, East Texas’ sweet potato farmers are cutting back or quitting the business, Phillips said.

For 1970, he estimates East Texas had about 5,000 acres of sweet potatoes. A mere two years ago, he said about 1,500 acres were planted, and last year, it was probably fewer than 1,000 acres.

“There were 70 or 80 growers when I started,” he said. “There might be 15 now, but the people who are still doing it do a real good job.”


Towns such as Golden and Gilmer continue annual sweet- potato festivals and parades, serving as reminders of East Texas’ once-rich sweet- potato history.

Texas ranked third nationally in the sweet potato industry, growing 13,500 acres of the crop, in 1970, according to the Texas Department of Agriculture,

The numbers dwindle from there. By 1980, Texas dropped to fourth with 8,000 acres.

The state maintained its fourth ranking through 2000, growing 6,800 in 1990 and 5,500 in 2000.

This year, Texas farmers only farmed 1,300 acres of sweet potatoes, and the state fell to eighth nationally.

Over that period, total U.S. acreage dropped from 132,500 acres in 1970 to a low of 81,200 in 1991 then back up to 113,800 in 2010, according to information from Texas Department of Agriculture.

In 1963, Van Zandt County ranked third in the nation in total sweet potato production, according to information from the Texas State Historical Association.

Phillips, 50, joined his father and uncle’s farming business in 1978, the year after he graduated high school, as a side project to his job at the salt mine.

He remembers several boys in his graduating class who joined their fathers’ farms.

These days, he said, there is not an incoming generation of growers.

“Very few younger people want to go into the business,” he said. “There’s nobody to come in behind us to replace us.”

He thinks the mounting obstacles facing today’s farmers deter the business.

Once a prospective farmer finds a large enough piece of land, he has to control wild hogs and deer, he said. The next step is praying for good weather during harvest season and finding enough affordable labor to get the job done.

But he noted that it would be “near impossible” to start up, unless the sweet potato hopeful had “a ton of cash on hand.”

Kelly Hamrick, 43, of Golden, was a third-generation farmer until he quit the business two years ago.

The decision to stop farming is what he calls one of the smartest decisions of his life.

In the 1980s, Hamrick’s father made the switch from watermelons to sweet potatoes when competition with Mexico grew fierce.

“By the time your crop was ready here, they had already had their crop on the market for three to four weeks ahead of you,” he said.

That put Texas watermelon farmers “at Mexico’s mercy for price,” he said.

But switching crops to sweet potatoes came with its own gambles.

“It’s still agriculture. It’s still farming,” Hamrick said. “You’ve got just as much risk in it as you have in any other crop.”

Bad weather can be devastating, he said.

When his father passed away in 1997, the business was great, Hamrick said.

By 1997, more than half his crop was “No. 1” – the money-maker grade sold in grocery stores. He sold about 30 semi-truck loads to stores in Iowa.

At $12 a box, and 1,000 boxes on each truck, 1997 was a good year, he said.

All of a sudden, from 1998 to 2000, the weather changed, he said.

“It was extremely dry, probably the worst years I ever had farming,” he said.

Suddenly, production plummeted. He lost the market he built in Iowa. By the time he recovered in 2001, he was forced to find a new market.

The year before, to supplement his sweet potato ventures, Hamrick invested in 100 head of cattle and built a convenience store just north of Mineola on U.S. Highway 69.

He gave potatoes another shot. But in 2008, like many of the sweet potato farmers in East Texas, he quit the business for good.

“To me, it all goes back on any industry – it’s tough. It’s a tossup,” Hamrick said. “The opportunity is there for someone who would want to do it, but bottom line is, it’s got to be financially feasible for you to do it.”


Conversely, up near Emory, Scott Lyles, 52, another third-generation farmer, is nurturing a new generation of farmers.

Lyles’ 10 children help with accounting and sales at Bright Star Farm.

He hopes his oldest son, Jared, 18, a senior in high school, will take over the business.

He said he is seriously considering it.

Scott Lyles inherited Bright Star Farm from his grandfather, Tom Hass. The farm was established in 1906 just outside of Emory in Raines County.

Lyle’s father, Preston, farmed “everything,” and his neighbor also was a farmer.

“I just grew up with it,” Lyles said.

Lyles married his sweetheart, Yolanda, 54, his senior year of school at Alba-Golden High School.

The newlyweds entered the farming business in 1981, growing a mere 10 acres of sweet potatoes but gradually expanded.

“It’s just a different lifestyle,” Lyles said. “Some people think it is too risky, but growing up in it, you don’t look at it the same way.”

This is the first year they have grown only sweet potatoes.

He said that once he had a good year, he might farm up production to 150 acres.

“Then we would have a disaster year,” he said.

He said his sweet number is between 80 and 100 acres, which he leases across the county.

Transporting tractors and other heavy equipment becomes more challenging with the growing population of aggressive drivers, he said.

“When you have to run all over the county to farm 80 acres, it makes it a little harder,” Lyles said.

In the mix of finding land to farm and keeping wild hogs away from the crops, sweet potato farmers also deal with weevils, a devastating insect.

In 2000, inspectors quarantined Lyle’s farm for a year after they found weevils in the barn.

The insect feeds and tunnels through sweet potatoes, leaving punctures on the skin and making the potato “unfit for human or animal consumption,” Lyles said.

Whether it was the right choice, he decided to take a break from sweet potatoes and grew cucumbers and shade trees.

The shade-tree operation is now in its 10th year, and Bright Star Farm is back on sweet potatoes.

“They both go real good together in the timing of the work,” he said.

For now, he has no plans to stop growing sweet potatoes.

“Sales were good then, and sales are good now,” Lyles said. “You don’t punch the clock. We’re not dreading Monday.”

But as for the future of East Texas sweet potato farmers, Lyles, and many other farmers who stuck it out, expect their numbers to continue dwindling.

Lyles said tourism to Lake Fork created a boom in growth to the area.

“Land is still an issue for us,” he said. “A lot of the land that was used in the past, there’s houses on it now.”

He and his wife are hopeful their children will take over the business.

“I wouldn’t change it for anything,” Lyles said. “This is what we were made to do.”

Published January 1
Tyler Morning Telegraph

Published by Melissa Crowe

I’m Melissa: an adventure-seeking, story-telling, internet-loving journalist. I work in Seattle. You can find my work in the Puget Sound Business Journal where I use data to tell stories about the people, businesses and industries driving Washington state’s economy.

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