Meet Our Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Farmer

Sweet Potato

Pop-quiz! What’s the difference between a yam and a sweet potato? 

If you don’t know the answer *yet* we want to introduce you to Dennis Thomas from Ham Farms in Snow Hill, North Carolina — the sweet potato capital of the world! 

You can find Ham Farm sweet potatoes and other veggies in grocery stores across the globe. We love partnering with them to make our I Yam What I Yam and Pumpkin Nut Partay Treats because sustainability is at the core of their business.

Ham Farms is a vertically-integrated farm, meaning they both grow and process their crops. A few years ago, they started Natural Blends Vegetable Dehydration — a sister company that dehydrates and processes their excess veggies into flours, dog foods, and other goods.

Dennis is the General Manager at Natural Blends. We talked to him about the importance of sustainable farming, sweet potatoes the size of footballs and the difference between yams and sweet potatoes.

Shameless: Tell us about how Ham Farms makes sustainability a core part of their business.

Dennis: Ham Farm grows sweet potatoes primarily for the fresh market. In other words, for grocery stores and produce suppliers. We grow them, harvest them and cure them. During harvesting, a machine will sort out what is a retail market size potato — those are the ones that this week you’ll go to the grocery store and buy three or four to cook for Thanksgiving. 

In the old days, the “pick outs” — the odd-shaped or sized potatoes — would be thrown back into the fields. Now, we take the pick-outs and sell them to processors who make french fries and things, or we bring them to Natural Blends and dehydrate them. So we are throwing away virtually nothing of the potato, even if it has a little deformity or something.

What percentage of your crop is usually a pick-out? 

It varies, but a good average would be about 20-25% range of pick-outs, and 75% of what’s called “pack-outs.” 

 

Sweet Potato Farm Tractor

Why did Ham Farms start Natural Blends?

We realized a few years ago that we were throwing away a lot of potatoes — not because of farming errors or bad practices, but because sweet potatoes are a root crop and the size of the potatoes is always changing — sometimes you’ll have three large potatoes off one set, sometimes you’ll have five to seven smaller ones. Sometimes, you’ll even grow what’s called a jumbo — which is a very large potato, the size of a small football.

Some steakhouses really want those large potatoes — they market having "the biggest sweet potato" on their menus — but most grocery stores have a set minimum and maximum size of the potatoes they want. We realized we had this opportunity and started out strictly making one ingredient: dehydrated sweet potato pellets for pet food. Now, we have transformed that into probably 12 to 14 different SKUs—we’re doing powders, flours, grains, pet treats and we’ve branched out into beets, pumpkins and cauliflower.

 

Okay—yams vs. sweet potatoes. What’s the difference?!

You’ve probably never in your lifetime seem a yam unless you’ve gone to a specialty market in New York or somewhere or you’ve gone to Africa or the Caribbean where they’re grown.

Yams have very little nutritional value — they’re actually more closely related to grass than sweet potatoes! Sweet potatoes, which are part of the morning glory family, come in a variety of colors: yellow flesh, white flesh, orange flesh and purple flesh potatoes. If you ever see “yams” sold at the grocery store, take a closer look at the packaging: it will also say sweet potato on there.


So, we have a confession.

I Yam What I Yam is not actually made of yams...but sweet potatos. Either way, your pup will love it! Snag this month’s seasonal flavor by joining Seasonal Savors, buying the Seasonal Variety Pack or — better yet — treating your pup to the Thanksgiving Pie Pack!