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Quail H brings younger, innovative perspective to sweet potatoes

By
JD LaTorre

The staff at Quail H Farms in Livingston, CA, looks to advance innovation and collaboration in the sweet potato business. In business since 2008, the company’s ownership and staff are “young” compared to other sweet potato companies. “We are fairly new to the industry when you consider a lot of the sweet potato companies in Livingston have been growing and shipping for 50 or 60 years,” explained Larelle Miller, sales manager. “We come into the industry with fresh eyes and we feel that brings innovation.”

Miller emphasized how the company seeks to promote cooperation in the industry. “We are very involved with the California Sweet Potato council,” she said. “Our goal is to bring the industry together to be a little more cohesive. We want to collaborate so we can all do a better job for the growers.”

Some of the company’s fresh-perspective ideas include more consumer-oriented information on the product. “Our mesh bags have great recipes and website information for product usage,” related Miller.     “In this day and age the consumer wants as much information as possible and bags are a great option to deliver it.  We have the standard mesh bags that we can pack in any weight configuration from a one-pound to a 10-pound bag. We’re currently researching the overwrap tray and may be able to offer something like that after the first of the year.”

The company also invests in organic. “We try to increase our organic production every year,” explained Miller. “Last year it was about 15 percent. This year we’re looking at about 20 to 22 percent of our planted acreage being organic. Organic product is becoming more popular and there is more demand than years ago. We see an increase in organic demand as mainstream retailers carry more organic product without affecting their conventional sales.”

Though Quail H grows all the standard sweet potato varieties, the company is investing more in a newer variety. “We have increased plantings of the Vermillion, a new red-skinned orange-flesh variety,” said Miller. “It tends to be a better storing potato than the Diane for instance and it’s prettier.”

“Another innovation of Quail H is the fact that 85 percent of our sweet potato volume is company owned,” explained Miller. “That makes us a bit different from our competitors. Most of our competitors source from outside growers where as only about 15 percent of ours is with outside growers. This also leads to us having an outstanding food safety and quality control program.”

Miller relayed the expectation of the season being a bit delayed this year. “We were about two weeks late getting started with harvest,” she said. “In spring we had some unfavorable weather during planting so everything started growing a little later than normal.”

The company has been harvesting fresh crop for about three weeks now according to Miller. “It’s a little slower than normal because we’re waiting for the potatoes to size,” she stated. “We’re taking our time to ensure the sizing we’d like to get. So far the quality of the potatoes being harvested in great - the internal and external quality looks good.”

With respect to volume, Miller conveyed it is expected to be comparable to last year. “Last year was a nice crop,” she said. “We weren’t over but we weren’t under. There were enough potatoes available without having excess.”

Miller also discussed the increasing cost constraints facing growers. “We speculate seeing something similar with sweet potato this year as retail saw with potatoes, meaning shorter supply and higher FOB,” she said. “It’s been tough. A lot of growers won’t be farming sweet potatoes if we can’t get better returns for them.”

Quail H’s innovative spirit extends to researching automation as labor costs increase, especially in the state of California, stated Miller. “It makes sense to go more automated but there is a lot of up front cost to get that done,” she said.

“And, there are a lot of changes that need to be made to accommodate automation. So we’re investigating the possibilities.”

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