Tracking the Sweet Potato Journey to your Thanksgiving Table

For over 100 years, the Matthews family has grown sweet potatoes in Wynne, Arkansas. Now in 2021, we want to look at the life cycle of sweet potatoes – and the journey that one part of your Thanksgiving dinner has taken for over a year to get to you.

The Growing Cycle

The planting cycle for sweet potatoes starts in mid-spring, several weeks after the last frost. And though technology has made planting easier, it’s still a labor of love. From an interview with Terra Firma, “There’s still nothing more technically advanced in terms of the way we plant,” explains Kim, partner and co-owner of MRF. “We’ve been doing it this way for decades and it’s a very labor-intensive process. You’re on an eight-row machine with 16 people, two people per row and you’re hand feeding the plants one by one onto a piece that sets the plant into the ground.” It happens this way across every acre of Matthews Ridge Farms. Traceability begins here too: lots are tagged in a (link: leading end-to-end traceability system) to start associating crops to the orders they fulfill.

After growing underground through the summer, fall harvest takes these full-grown tubers out of the ground and into 60,000 square feet of climate-controlled storage, where they will be held both to meet year-round demand as well as give the sweet potatoes adequate time to harden for transportation. Sweet potatoes are heat-cured before being sent out to distribution centers, then grocery stores, and eventually purchased by consumers. 

How old are the Sweet Potatoes at Thanksgiving?

In years past, sweet potato demand was low in spring and summer, and grew through fall, with peak demand around the thanksgiving holidays. While this is still true, producers are seeing higher-and-higher demand for sweet potatoes year round, spurred on by changes in the last two years. Meeting holiday demand means having a large stock-pile of ready-to-ship sweet potatoes on-hand by early November. For this reason, the yams at this year’s Thanksgiving dinner were likely harvested over a year ago – and planted 6 months before that!

Making Traditions Possible

When you sit down for Thanksgiving dinner, it’s worth thinking about how your meal came together – it takes an entire network of growers, planters, and shippers, connected through traceability technology, to make the meals we cherish possible.

(Full interview with Terra Firma found here)

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