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Weekly 150: Steele Plant Company

The First Family of Sweet Potatoes

Posted 4/20/21

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for families in the rural south to have a garden and sell their surplus crops for a little extra money. In Gleason, the cash crop was sweet potatoes, earning the little municipality the title of Tater Town, USA. Many households in Gleason raised a plot of sweet potatoes. During the harvest, the potatoes were brought to a central warehouse and were sent out to various vendors in the county.

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Weekly 150: Steele Plant Company

The First Family of Sweet Potatoes

Posted

Back in the 1950s, it wasn’t uncommon for families in the rural south to have a garden and sell their surplus crops for a little extra money. In Gleason, the cash crop was sweet potatoes, earning the little municipality the title of Tater Town, USA. Many households in Gleason raised a plot of sweet potatoes. During the harvest, the potatoes were brought to a central warehouse and were sent out to various vendors in the county.

In 1950, Claude Steele (1904-1983) began a produce business that transported peaches, apples, and other crops by truck across numerous states. His business grew rapidly when he added sweet potatoes. Three years later his son-in-law, Dudley “Butch” Sanders (1927-1990) joined the produce business. Dudley worked as a teacher and coach while moonlighting with his father-in-law to supplement his income.

They continued their regular line of work for much of the year, but in the spring months, they focused on sweet potatoes. Before too long, the Steele Plant Company became the largest sweet potato dealer in Tennessee.

In 1974, the Steele-Sanders family decided to begin working with Bart Brown of Omaha Plant Farms in Omaha, Texas. Steele Plant Company was acquired to drop ship sweet potato plants for Brown’s company, soon other vendors were requesting the service of the Gleason business.

Dudley and his wife, Martha (1927-2011), had two children, Ken and Kay, both of which joined in the family business. Ken and his wife, Valerie, along with Kay and her husband, Larry Hudson, currently serve as partners. Ken started full-time in 1979 and Larry joined in 1981. The current education of the family partnership is not that of a usual farming family. Ken has an engineering degree from UT Martin, Valerie has a liberal arts degree from Freed-Hardeman University, Kay has an English degree from UT Martin and Larry has an animal science degree from UT Martin.

A transition was made from focusing on raising the potatoes themselves to raising the plants for families and businesses around the country. The business has grown from a small patch of land on Gibbs Road to the 135-acre Albert Wright Farm, purchased in 2009. The current location cultivates sweet potatoes on a thirty-five-acre annual crop rotation.

Steele Plant Company ships upwards of nearly 4.5 million plants a year from their downtown location. They process between 40 and 45 thousand orders a year, mostly to individuals buying a few dozen plants, shipping all 50 states and occasionally to overseas customers.

At present, Steele Plant Farms ships for 22 seed catalog companies and several wholesale companies across the United States. Once, a customer even flew from Switzerland to purchase seven pounds of sweet potato plants. Each year the family attends both the sweet potato and the mail-order gardening conventions to learn more about the latest growing techniques, the newest equipment, and best advertising strategies to reach a broad spectrum of gardening enthusiasts.

Unlike the common Irish potato, sweet potatoes are not grown from the eyes of the potato. For the sweet potato to grow, the whole potato is planted in a bed. Then 25 to 60 plants emerge from the potato. The Steele Plant Company family starts planting potatoes in January; by April and May, the plants are ready to be shipped to the customer.

The potatoes are planted in beds filled with a mixture of sawdust and other ingredients. Many of the beds are outside while some are constructed indoors in a greenhouse. The greenhouses provide a steady supply of warm water flowing beneath the sawdust surface. This keeps the soil at a constant temperature of 72 degrees. A single bed can produce a harvest of 35,000 individual plants.

After the demand decreases for the plants, the family focuses on raising potatoes for sale to customers and as seeds for the following year’s crop.

Included with each order of plants are two booklets, a grower’s guide and a collection of recipes. Each page contains clear instructions on caring for and raising the plants, as well as a host of classic recipes for sweet potatoes.

The Sanders and Hudson families are the “First Family of Sweet Potatoes.”

Now in its 68th year of operation, the Steele Plant Company stands behind each plant and potato they sell to the consumer. “We want to continue this business year in the tradition of our founders. Each instilled in us the desire to give the best quality plants and service possible.”

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