Sweet potatoes part of Portales’ past

By Karl Terry: Freedom New Mexico

The sweet potato has been a part of Thanksgiving fare for a long time. Sweet potatoes were also a part of the Roosevelt County agriculture scene for nearly a century.

Sweet potato crops slowly died out in the 1970s and 1980s around Portales. Growers that are still around aren’t exactly sure when the Sweet Potato Association in Portales closed down, but they say it was probably the late 1970s. Only a few growers continued producing sweet potatoes after it closed.

“We were the last ones and we quit probably 12 or so years ago,” Caroline Newberry said of growing the yams.

Her husband, Roy Newberry, said his family got into the business in 1970. He admits that was late in the history of sweet potatoes in the Portales Valley. He said when he started the potatoes were still being dug by hand, but lack of labor soon forced them to switch to a mechanical digger.

“You couldn’t find the help that was willing to get down on their knees and dig them,” Newberry said. “It (raising sweet potatoes) made us more money than anything else but it was a lot more work.”

While sweet potatoes were a staple crop for the Newberrys, who normally planted 125-130 acres, other farmers mixed their production with peanuts, corn and sorghum and might only have 40 acres in potatoes.

Bud Kenyon’s family was one such farm. He says his family grew sweet potatoes on their place just east of the Portales Cemetery for generations.

“I was raised out there,” Kenyon said. “Grandpa grew ‘em and daddy grew ‘em. Grandpa started growing them when he came here in 1915 and I know they were being grown before that.”

Kenyon and others say the crop was very labor intensive, which was one of the big reasons for its demise in the valley.

He said his family, like most others, had their own hot beds where they raised potato slips (seedlings) from cut up seed potatoes.
Kenyon says when it was time to plant the crop, women worked in the beds and pulled the slips that the men hauled to the field, where they were set out usually by hired field hands.

A stick was used to push the slip into the ground in the early days. Later a machine would set the seedlings, but hand labor was required to feed the slips.

In the fall, Newberry says before the days of mechanized diggers a breaking plow was used to turn the plant and potatoes underneath. Then field hands were employed to dig the potatoes out of the row and crate them in wooden bushel crates which they dragged behind them through the field as they worked. They were normally paid by the bushel.

“Grandpa Kenyon was pretty particular about how they packed ‘em in the crates,” said Kenyon’s wife, Jewel Kenyon. “They had to put them in longways and they had to all go the same direction. If they didn’t do it right he made them repack them.”

Former Sweet Potato Association manager Bill Owen said the labor required turned the economic wheels of Portales by providing pocket money in time for the holidays.

But many farmers reached a breaking point and went elsewhere.

“A lot of them (farmers) didn’t have enough water and they could make bigger profits on other crops,” Owen said. “It got to the point where they couldn’t compete and make a profit.”

Owen said some of the production went to places in Texas, where the potatoes could be a dryland crop. Newberry said today California and North Carolina are the biggest sweet potato producers, with Texas producers dying out.