Golden plans to continue sweet potato celebration
With a little luck and a lot of planning, the Golden Sweet Potato Festival will open next week.
Golden plans to continue sweet potato celebration
With a little luck and a lot of planning, the Golden Sweet Potato Festival will open next week. It may mark the first such community event conducted in Wood County since the outbreak of the pandemic. We all hope that it does indeed open, and that all who partake in the celebration abide by whatever rules are in place to keep folks safe and healthy.
As a population, we haven’t had much to celebrate through the year. Most of the venues and events which traditionally bring us together have been altered such that they are practically divisive and not communal. It may just be the utilitarian sweet potato which brings us together.
The Golden Sweet Potato Festival began in 1982, during what could be considered the boom of sweet potato farming in and around Golden. It has been hugely successful. A wide variety of events – from gospel singers to tractor displays to beauty queens – create an atmosphere which promotes community.
And it is the community which benefits from the festival. Any proceeds go to community assistance. Volunteer fire departments, maintenance of the community center, the Meals on Wheels program, scholarships and Special Kids Farm and Ranch Day are some of the recipients.
Every year seems to bring a little something extra, and the festival has drawn folks from much farther afield than the stretch of Texas between Mineola and Alba.
At the center of the festival is the sweet potato.
Sitting at a picnic table in front of the Golden Grocery, it is hard to imagine what the intersection of FM 779 and FM 1799 at Golden looked like during harvest season 40 years ago.
As Stan Smith, one of the last sweet potato brokers who worked the Golden market, recalls, “Golden was the center of the East Texas sweet potato industry. During harvest season we’d have 18-wheelers backed up to wait their turn to either load or weigh-in.”
“In a typical season, 300 trucks would come to load in Golden,” Smith recounted. Some of those trucks would be coming to weigh-in at the truck scales – on the northwest corner of the intersection – then go load in the fields and come back for their full load weigh-in.
Other trucks would come to load sweet potatoes at that very spot.
Smith explained, “Many farmers brought their sweet potatoes to Golden and the produce would be loaded from potato bins into open roofed trailers right here.”
Smith ran the brokerage from a small building which stood beside the old post office.
“I had a window in front of my desk which looked directly at the weigh station,” he noted. “They loaded and weighed and I’d pay them.”
One of two brokerages that served the Golden market, Smith operated the office from 1975-1996.
He explained that his father, Charles, and grandfather Olen Smith were also involved in the industry. The Smith brokerage shut down in 1996 as farmers began selling directly to canners.
The boom market in sweet potatoes fed canneries in Louisiana, such as the Allen Cannery of Lafayette. They sought the smaller #3 grade sweet potato produced locally. Harvest season ran from September to November.
One of those local farmers sending their potatoes to Louisiana was Randy Russell. Like Smith, Russell was born and raised in Golden. He was a third generation farmer, following his father George and grandfather “JW.” The family grew watermelon and sweet potatoes.
“At one time,” Russell explained, “there were 75 farmers in the area around Golden, many producing sweet potatoes. Today there are two: Phil Jones and myself.”
Russell has largely downsized his potato operation from a 150-acre farm to 10 acres of potatoes, but he can’t give it up.
“I just love farming,” he stated matter-of-factly, “but it’s not a paying proposition.”
Russell still grows sweet potatoes and watermelon for the local market and to help the community. He admitted that there were a lot of older folks in the community who count on that box of potatoes every year.
The decline of the sweet potato industry in Golden had its roots in simple supply and demand. Smith related that the canneries in Louisiana started, in the early 2000s, sourcing their sweet potatoes from larger producers in Georgia, North Carolina and Louisiana. The absence of demand for Golden potatoes spelled the end of the flourishing sweet potato industry.
Most farmers transitioned their holdings to pasture and became ranchers. Russell ticked off a whole list of reasons why small farmers have ceased production. Most have to do with the increased costs (machinery, fertilizer, labor, transportation) which have far eclipsed the modest increase in the value of produce. The availability of land to lease and the immense costs associated with beginning a farm operation also were noted.
“Sweet potato farming is expensive,” he explained. “You mechanize where you can, but you still must have a large cultivation shed, a digger, tractors, a boxing house and a lot of labor.” Russell added that the damage caused by feral hogs has become a plague.
Despite the obstacles, farming remains critical to the nation. The latest Gallup poll recorded farming as the most positively-viewed business sector in the United States. It is the first time that agriculture claimed the top-rated business spot in America.
For Russell, and likely all farmers, there is something bigger at play. The connection of people to the land they cultivate is a real thing. The attachment is very strong. However, the gap between producers and consumers seems to be ever-widening.
“This is why I keep planting,” Russell said as he showed a video on his phone of his two young granddaughters, Jayla and Kynslee, walking down a field of elevated rows. One was prepping the row for planting by using the old “stick and stomp” method, while the other laid the young plants out, down each row.
“I just wanted them to know how it used to be done before machinery,” Russell stated. Above all else, farming is authentic.
For an opportunity to reconnect with our agricultural past, and present, remember the Golden Sweet Potato Festival.