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Columbus County businessman finds new ways to market homegrown sweet potatoes

Staff photo by James Robinson

And in the state that produces half of the nation's sweet potatoes, that's saying something.

"Whatever talents God gave me, it's in sweet potatoes," George Wooten said, wearing a shirt just the right shade of orange to match the core of a sweet potato. "I'm not a musician. I'm not an athlete. I'm the sweet potato guy."

Wooten is president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce in Chadbourn. Industry leaders say his company, which handles 10 percent of the nation's sweet potatoes, has been a forerunner in innovation and marketing the root vegetable as a healthier alternative to its starchy tuber cousin, the white potato.

Wooten is the brains behind Trinity Frozen Food, a sweet potato fry manufacturer opening a plant in Pembroke in July.

"The sweet potato is not new," Wooten said. "We just found a way to make it marketable."

Wooten revolutionized the sweet potato industry by automating the sorting by size to produce a more consistent product.

Wayne E. Bailey Produce operates out of a 229,000-square-foot gated facility on Old U.S. 74 about a mile north of Chadbourn. Wooten calls the operation "sweet potato central." It features the most modern equipment in the industry and a workforce of nearly 400, according to the company's website.

The plant vibrates with the hum of conveyer belts sorting and packaging sweet potatoes from the company's 5,400 acres of farmland. The company contracts with dozens of other North Carolina farmers to market and package their potatoes.

Wooten discovered a way to package the potatoes not only for commercial sellers but to meet the diverse needs of the food service industry.

The company uses forced air curing and climate-controlled storage to enhance the taste and extend the shelf life of the sweet potato.

It has a storage facility in Clinton on the edge of a vast sweet potato farm, along with facilities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

In 1977, when he began at the company, which he inherited from his stepfather, Wooten said it handled about 2.5 million pounds of potatoes a year.

In 2013, it packaged and shipped more than 200 million pounds - about 10 percent of the nation's sweet potatoes.

"It took me two years to make my first sale," he said. "I'm persistent. I don't let the nos get me.

"I'd talk to people, and three years later they'd call," Wooten said. "I'd give them my card and say, 'Here, you'll need it.' "

As the company began to grow, competitors had to follow suit modernizing their facilities and using the packaging ideas.

Jere Null, president of Trinity Frozen Foods, said Wooten promotes the entire industry, not just Wayne E. Bailey.

"He figures what's good for the industry is good for his company," Null said. "Everything that he does is very selfless."

Despite growth in the industry, consumption was still down when Wooten took the helm in 1991.

In the 1930s, the average American ate about 28.5 pounds of sweet potatoes a year. In 1993, annual consumption fell to an all-time low of 3.8 pounds per person.

The sweet potato was typically resigned to Thanksgiving or Christmas but was rarely eaten year-round, Wooten said.

He saw a hole in the market.

Sweet potatoes were not sold or manufactured in other applications like the white potato, which is available mashed, baked, fried and as chips. The industry calls these value-added products, Wooten said.

So he began toying with the idea of producing peeled, ready-cut and cubed sweet potatoes, and sweet potato fries.

Another problem, Null said, was there was no manufacturer in the state making fries and other sweet potato products.

Despite growing 65,000 acres of sweet potatoes, North Carolina shipped most of them to plants in the Midwest, Null said.

"George said that just doesn't make sense," Null said.

In 2009, a plant in Pembroke, now home to Steven Roberts Original Desserts, was for sale.

"My wife said, 'You need to go ahead and do it or be quiet about it,' " Wooten said. "She had heard me talking about it for 14 years. I don't know if that was a blessing or a denial, but I took it as a yes."

Wooten bought the plant and formed George Foods, named for his father, who died when Wooten was 7. He began producing fries and ready-made sweet potato products. But the sales were not where they needed to be, Wooten said.

Steven Roberts bought the plant the next year, but Wooten was not ready to give up on his dream of having a sweet potato manufacturer in the state.

He gathered 29 other investors and formed Trinity Foods, which announced in April its plans to open a plant in Pembroke about a mile from the former George Foods facility. Wooten turned over George Food's products, clients and part of its sales team to Trinity Foods.

Wooten is one of 30 owners of Trinity Frozen Foods and sits on its board. He does not have a day-to-day role in the company.

But Wayne E. Bailey has a 20-year provider agreement with the factory.

Trinity's plant in Pembroke is expected to open at the end of July making fries and cubed, mashed and pureed sweet potatoes, which are often used in desserts as a sweetener.

It will start with 30 employees, Null said, and expectations are that it will expand to 150 employees within two years.

Sweet potato consumption has nearly doubled since 1993.

Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission attributes the resurgence to the diversification of the product.

"George saw the future of sweet potatoes in these fries and battered products that appeal to the masses," Null said.

Despite his focus in recent years on starting Trinity Frozen Foods, Wooten's heart is with Wayne E. Bailey Produce, where he works with his two sons, the fourth generation to work at the business.

"I don't have a hobby," Wooten said. "Sweet potatoes are my hobby."

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