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Kentucky groundbreakers: co-op farmers now grow sweet potatoes in fields formerly planted with tobacco.

The LaRue County, Ky., farmers who formed Kentucky Groundbreakers Inc., a marketing cooperative, have replaced their old cash crop, tobacco, with a new one: sweet potatoes.

"We knew that once we started raising the crop, we would have a lot more power to market if we came together [in a co-op]," explains Travis Cleaver, a farmer-member of Kentucky Groundbreakers. "We had heard about KCARD [Kentucky Center for Agriculture and Rural Development] services, and turned to them to help establish the cooperative. They have just been phenomenal. They helped us plan, explained how a co-op works, helped us look at the potential markets for sweet potatoes and really held our hand through the whole process."

It was in late 2013 when the farmers began looking at the possibility of raising sweet potatoes as a cash crop. Cleaver was working with specialists at Kentucky State University to conduct small-scale vegetable production field trials when he saw the potential of growing sweet potatoes here.

"I was looking for a cash crop that my father and some of the older members of the group could easily grow," Cleaver recalls. "I knew they wouldn't want to be out every day picking green beans to take to market, but they could go out and drive the tractor and pick up sweet potatoes at harvest."

Further, sweet potatoes need relatively few inputs, compared to many other crops, he notes. "I saw a potential market for the product, as more restaurants are offering them on the menu."

Another selling point for sweet potatoes, in the eyes of the former tobacco farmers, was the ability to use equipment they already had on their farms for growing tobacco. The ability to utilize tobacco setters, sprayers and other equipment meant that the farmers would not have to invest heavily in equipment to begin their sweet potato operations.

"We have been able to use most of our equipment that we used in the tobacco field," says Cleaver. "Our only big purchase as a cooperative has been the potato digger. We wanted to make sure to have good harvesting equipment."

Industry connections critical for success

Along with helping the farmers with the cooperative development process, Cleaver says KCARD played a significant role in helping members of the co-op connect with individuals in the industry as they developed their organization. KCARD helped connect the group with the Kentucky Horticulture Council and with University of Kentucky Extension agents and specialists who have provided guidance for the project. Even more importantly, they have helped the farmers connect with other producers who are raising sweet potatoes.

"KCARD put us in touch with a group of farmers in eastern Kentucky who diversified their operations by adding sweet potatoes to their production," says Cleaver. "Many of the farmers were also former tobacco farmers. They have given us suggestions and guidance on everything from the production side to the marketing side for the product."

Kentucky Groundbreakers produced its first crop in the summer of 2014, with each of the five members of the cooperative planting only one-fourth of an acre.

"We wanted to start small last year, as we were still building the cooperative and identifying the markets for the potatoes," says Cleaver. "Our goals for that first year were to get experience producing the crop and marketing the sweet potatoes as a group."

Though they were not an official cooperative last year, the group of five farmers came together and marketed their crop together working with a new company, Proud Processing and Distribution, based in Bardstown, Ky.

Working together

While the members all kept some sweet potatoes to sell at farmer markets, the majority were sold through Proud Processing. "Marketing our crop together with Blake Roby [of Proud Processing] was a good experience, so we felt that moving forward with establishing the cooperative was right for our group," says Cleaver.

Inclement weather put a damper on plans to expand acreage in 2015. "This year we were all hoping to put out larger crops, but weather conditions were a challenge," Cleaver explains. "A few of us were able to put out a half an acre, and the rest did at least one-fourth acre again."

In August 2015, the farmers finalized all the required paperwork and registered Kentucky Groundbreakers Inc. as a cooperative with the Kentucky Secretary of State. The founding members of the cooperative include: Daniell Price, William Curle, Kenneth Cleaver, Travis Cleaver and Scott Curle, all of LaRue County. All the coop members say they will again market their crops through the co-op this fall.

"One of the strengths of this group is their approach," says Brent Lackey, KCARD business development specialist. "They have been focused on building a strong foundation for a sustainable cooperative by focusing on growing a quality crop as they learn about production efficiencies, develop markets and establish the business.

They have shown a commitment to work together to develop an additional revenue stream for everyone in the coop and other small-scale farmers in the area, not just themselves."

"As we grow, I would like to get to a point where we can store, grade and process our own sweet potatoes, bringing more marketing opportunities for our product," says Cleaver. "Of course, getting to that point will take some time, so I am looking forward to a long working relationship with the team at KCARD as we continue to grow our cooperative."

Editor's note: Keeton is a Kentucky-based journalist. This article is provided courtesy KCARD.
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Title Annotation:CO-OP MONTH SPECIAL SECTION
Author:Keeton, Kara
Publication:Rural Cooperatives
Geographic Code:1U6KY
Date:Sep 1, 2015
Words:910
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