Mound Bayou Sweet Potatoes, MAC and Glory Foods
By Dan Burden, email@example.com
Portions of this text originally appeared in Food and Faces, Mississippi Association of Cooperatives; July, November 2001; the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives and Glory Foods web pages and press releases.
In 1938, Louis Sander's father acquired forty acres of land through President Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal program, allowing his family to move off of a plantation to their own farm in Mound Bayou, Mississippi, where he and his eight siblings were raised. He left the farm for college. After graduating, he took a job with IBM working with military contracts for the ongoing Vietnam War and later transferred to a computer company in Nebraska. When his father died in 1972, Sanders searched for work back home. However, while companies appeared interested in Louis' resume, when he interviewed in person he was told that the advertised job position was filled, though a job with significantly less pay was available. Frustrated with this situation, Sanders returned to farming with his brother to bide his time until he found a fair job offer. His temporary farm life grew from one month to one year to decades. “I guess I just never stopped farming,” Sanders explains.
Historically, the farmers of the Mound Bayou area focused on two major cash crops - cotton and soybeans. In the 1960s, the problem of malnutrition and hunger in the Mississippi Delta let to programs to encourage farmers to grow fresh produce for the community. To better market these new products, farmers formed the Mound Bayou Farmer's Cooperative. Sanders' became deeply involved and his experience led him into a second cooperative in the 90s, a time when farmers were exploring fresh-produce alternatives to conventional grain and cotton production due to the instability of the market. During this time, Wardell Sanders (no relation), who had been trucking vegetables for 30 years, returned home to Mound Bayou with a desire to grow sweet potatoes. "He said the sweet potatoes grown here had a better taste than potatoes grown anywhere else," remembered Louis. With help from Alcorn State University, Wardell convinced several farmers, including Sanders, to grow a test crop of sweet potatoes.
Mr. Sanders found himself at one of the cooperative's meeting due to Ronald Thorton, a leader in the new coop. "He was a young, energetic man. At that time, I was young and energetic too, so we gravitated toward one another," Sanders explained. Before he knew it, Louis became deeply involved in the cooperative, particularly enjoying his leadership in the cooperative's Emergency Land Forum, which works to prevent the loss of black-owned farmland.
Sanders acknowledged, "Before I started growing sweet potatoes, I wasn't a big fan. It wasn't anything special to me." His niece, however, insisted that he at least try one of his homegrown potatoes: "I'll be honest with you. When my wife finally baked me one of our sweet potatoes, it was so good, I ate the hull. Then I said, 'I'm gonna grow some of these.'" Mr. Sanders expanded his production, as did many other farmers who had tested the crop. In 1995, they formed the Sweet Potato Grower's Association and joined the Mississippi State Association of Cooperatives. The Mississippi Association of Cooperatives (MAC), Jackson, MS, is a member of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives. MAC has worked for 25 years to bring together and enhance the work of a network of primarily African-American producer cooperatives and credit unions.
There are currently thirteen community-based organizations within MAC across the state: nine cooperatives, two credit unions and two associate organizations. These included both farming and housing cooperatives, as well as credit unions. Prominent crops include sweet potatoes, okra, peas, kale, watermelon and a variety of herbs. Marketing outlets for these crops include home delivery, farm stands, rural and urban farmers markets (many of which participate in the Farmers Market Nutrition Program), food distributors and grocery stores. These cooperatives also work with partners in surrounding states to market their produce in major metropolitan areas, including Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Memphis and New Orleans. When farmers expressed a need for processing facilities, MAC responded, raising, to-date over $5 million for four value-added processing plants.
The Mound Bayou growers have had mixed success with their crops. According to Sanders, "It's an up and down world. When we've had good seasons, we've had success. Unfortunately, three out of the past five years have been droughts." However, prospects look strong for the coming years. The cooperative recently formed a relationship with Glory Foods, a major distributor for Midwestern supermarkets. Glory currently is marketing, and expanding its marketing of Glory Foods Mound Bayou Sweet Potatoes, which will potentially help to establish a brand identity for Mound Bayou products.
This relationship, created in November 1999 between the growers and Glory Foods, Inc., Columbus, Ohio, is one where a manufacturer of conveniently prepared heat-and-eat seasoned Southern-style canned vegetables, condiments and frozen dinners has decided to market both processed products and fresh produce under the brand Glory Foods Mound Bayou Sweet Potatoes. Introduced in the fall of 1998 at Schnucks supermarkets in St. Louis, Missouri, the line prominently centers on the Beauregard variety, a popular sweet potato with growers and consumers because of its natural sweet taste, plumpness and good storage life. Cured in approximately 45 days, the Beauregard sweet potato is viewed as the number one producing variety in the country. Glory Foods Mound Bayou Sweet Potatoes are available in Chicago at Jewel-Osco Supermarkets, in St. Louis, Missouri, Schnucks and Albertson's Plant City, Florida, and additional markets.
With consumers becoming increasingly health conscious, sweet potatoes are becoming a vegetable of choice. A spokesperson at the USDA notes that consumption of sweet potatoes is on the rise because of their natural nutritional value, (high levels of Beta-Carotene, Vitamins A and C). In 1999, 4.6 pounds per capita were consumed.
"I want Glory Foods Mound Bayou Sweet Potatoes to be the destination of choice for consumers who want a high quality brand of sweet potato," explains Bill Williams, president of Glory Foods, Inc. "During the holidays, sweet potato usage is very high, but we want Glory Foods sweet potatoes to be an important part of the family meal year-round."
Providing quality Southern food products is a partnership Glory Foods shares with experienced African-American commercial farmers. Glory’s relationship with black farmers began in the early 90s through an alliance with the Federation of Southern Cooperatives Land Assistance Fund (FSCLAF), an advocacy organization that provides technical support and hands on services to Black farmers. The union enabled Glory to gain invaluable insight on the issues and challenges facing these farmers.
The company’s commitment then, as it is now, is to provide resource and development support to insure their future in the 21st century. This effort is seen in partnerships formed with the 20 member Sweet Potato Growers Association Co-op (SPGAC) in Mound Bayou, MS. Mound Bayou is a historic black township founded in the late 1800s by ex-slaves. The township was an impressive model for social and economic empowerment when it was founded. Today, because of its designation as an Empowerment Zone, the town is experiencing an economic revival because of companies like Glory that provide investment resources to assist in rebuilding and strengthening its infrastructure. Glory leased land from SPGAC to grow sweet potatoes for its canned and frozen line, and market a percentage as fresh produce. Glory’s support gives the assurance that the crops will be sold and the farmers will reap a return on their investment.
Glory has also partnered with the United Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Association to co- sponsor a five-year Minority Produce Business Development Program (MPBDP) to train the farmers how to better grow and distribute quality products and become a larger part of the national produce industry. "This training gives us the ability to access additional markets and gain information on the latest production, marketing, storage and distribution techniques" explains Roger Morris, a member of SPGAC. "Having the support of Glory Foods and United will help us make the transition from growers to marketers."
Mr. Sanders sees obstacles for farmers, specifically African-American farmers, in accessing land and resources. What scares him the most, however, is the dwindling labor supply. "Land has gone out of favor with the majority of our people. Farming is not viewed as a viable profession. "So what keeps this man farming? "I guess it could be in my blood. The first commandment God gave man is, 'Here is the earth. Subdue it,' ... it's a tricky balance. You don't want to overdue it, but you want to let the land serve you. It's like mining a diamond." Lest Mr. Sanders appear too serious, he offers one more reason for his continued agricultural efforts, "good home cooking!"
For Additional Information:
Glory Foods - Glory Foods press release regarding Mound Bayou Sweet Potatoes.
Glory Foods - Glory Foods mission statement discussing their efforts as an African-American-owned food distributor to foster relationships between black farmers, major food retail chains, and government leaders and agencies.
Mound Bayou Coop - From Food and Faces, (untitled), Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, July 2001.
Mound Bayou Coop - From Food and Faces, Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, Your Support for the Small Farm Connection Helps Build Rural Communities, November, 2001
Mississippi Association of Cooperatives - About the Mississippi Association of Cooperatives, P.O. Box 22786, Jackson, MS, 39205. Contact: Daisy Garrett (601) 354-2750; firstname.lastname@example.org
Mississippi Sweet Potato Council - Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, P.O. Box 5207, Mississippi State, MS 39762, (601) 325-7773.