Life's Sweet Side

The generations have come together to help keep one dedicated farmer doing what he loves most.

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Paul Cook has found joy in farming his whole life. At 86, he is thankful daughter Jan Cook Houston moved home to join him in the business, Image by Victoria G. Myers

Paul Cook still uses a red, 1958 Farmall 200 tractor in his sweet potato operation. He bought it new, cash in hand. Together the two have covered six decades worth of miles over the family’s Mississippi farm. The 86-year-old Cook is still pretty proud of her.

“I was in the field one day on that little old tractor, looking across the road at a guy with three or four big, new tractors sitting there,” recalls Cook.

He cracks a smile, as he recalls how he saw them watching him. He stopped, got off his Farmall, walked to the front and patted the hood. “She’s paid for boys, I hollered. They just laughed.”

It was a good joke, but there was some truth in it for a life-long farmer who has never borrowed money to make a crop. He says he decided that when he harvested a crop, he liked knowing the money belonged to him, not a creditor. It’s a mindset that’s worked for Cook. He’s still in the sweet potato business, working his Vardaman farm with the help of daughter Jan Cook Houston, and grandson Kevin Stafford.

Cook is a quiet force in the small town, the kind of man who believes in hard work and that a handshake is as good a promise as anyone can give or get. He remembers when they first got electricity, and how his mother wanted a refrigerator so she wouldn’t have to put a block of ice and a quilt over their milk to keep it from going bad. He can tell you about not knowing how to use a phone, and the first time he went to the switch board in Vardaman to dial long distance. It’s a good story.

“Back then you sold your own produce. There were no packing houses. I’d take my truck 425 miles, round trip, to sell sweet potatoes,” he says, considering the details, looking down at his dusty shoes.

“I did that trip once a week. And there was a guy--he was at the end of my route--who wanted to buy more bushels than I’d have left by the time I got there. One day he wrote down his telephone number and told me to call him before I left next time to see how many bushels he wanted. I stuck that card in my pocket and I worried about it all week long. I woke up worrying about it. You see I had never talked on a telephone. We didn’t have one, and I sure didn’t know how to dial long distance.”

But there was a switch board in Vardaman, and Cook recalls how he nervously walked in and asked the telephone lady to dial that number.

“She said she sure would, and she started pulling cords and putting them in one hole or another. It was the first time I ever talked on a phone. I’ll never forget that.”

Now he wears a cell phone--a convenience his daughter Jan quips, “he uses a little too much sometimes.”

Quick-witted, with an amazing recall of prices and facts from the past, Cook tells how his father, A. H. Cook, moved here from Tennessee in 1910. Land was cheaper in Mississippi, so the elder Cook started farming these Calhoun County white loam soils. It’s a legacy Paul Cook will one day pass down to his children--Gayle, Jan, Traci and Blake.

Celebrating Sweet Potatoes. Vardaman is known as the “Sweet Potato Capital of the World.” It’s a small town, population 1,291, where the big event each fall is the Sweet Potato Festival. The week-long festival isn’t just about a commodity, it’s about family ties like the Cooks’, and how the sweet potato has connected the generations here.

In the case of Paul Cook, that started with Kevin, Gayle’s son, who began helping his grandfather with day to day farming jobs in 1995, just out of high school. Then in 2009, Jan decided nothing would make her happier than to move home.

You Can Go Back Home. Jan says she was ready for the kind of change that lets you go home, breathe deep, and listen to the quiet. She came armed with a bachelor’s degree in business, and 30 years’ experience working in corporate America, the last several as a human resources manager in Alabama.

Cook smiles, eyes twinkling, as he tells stories about Jan and her interest in the farm from an early age. It is clear he relishes having her back.

“She wanted to go to the field every day,” he recalls, adding she learned to drive a tractor at 13, much to her mother’s chagrin.

“I’d send her on errands,” he says. “One day I had low air in some tractor tires, so I had her take the air tank up to the service station to get 100 pounds of air. The manager was busy, so he told her she could fill it up herself. She did. But when she was ready to go, she walked over to him, put her hands on her hips, and told him she could fill it with air, but she couldn’t lift a 100-pound tank of air. He told her it weighed the same as it did when she brought it in. We’ve all laughed about that for years.”

Jan always loved farming, but at the time she was growing up it never felt like a career path for a woman. When she did return, it was one of the worst years in memory for Mississippi sweet potato farmers. They harvested in the mud, with Jan driving the digger and praying she wouldn’t slide into the ditch. She earned the title “farmer” that year, in no uncertain terms.

When she’s not working with her dad, Jan grows her own crops of sweet potatoes, sweet corn and purple hull peas. She sells locally through word of mouth and Facebook posts. She also helps run the sweet potato bakery and continues to be an advocate for the industry she and her family have been such a key part of over the years. Sweet Potato Sweets is a testament to that commitment.

Cook had wanted to see a store in town that sold sweet potato products for years. “I always said we needed a place to sell finished goods. That idea rolled around in my head for a long time,” he says. “When my wife Daphna retired as postmistress in town, she wanted something to do. We thought this might fill the time.”

So along with the wives of two other area sweet potato producers--Karen Wright and Barbara Williams--the Cooks started the store-front business in 1996. It’s been a success. Since the store opened, Jan estimates they’ve probably sold well over 150,000 pies. Not to mention fudge, cakes, bread, muffins--you name it, there’s probably a way to put sweet potatoes in it.

To be fair, the endeavor had its naysayers back at the start. There were those who said no one standing in the middle of one of the world’s biggest sweet potato patches was going to buy anything made from a sweet potato. Cook grins, shaking his head. “My mother-in-law told me you’ll never sell a sweet potato pie in Vardaman, Mississippi. But you sure can. You can sell a lot of them.”

Sweet Potato Facts:

> USDA reports the highest acreages for U.S. sweet potato crops are in North Carolina, California, Louisiana and Mississippi.

> Unlike white potatoes, sweet potatoes thrive in tropical conditions--although too much rain can be a problem.

> Sweet potatoes don’t start from a seed like other crops, but from a “slip” which is a shoot off of a mature sweet potato. This seed stock generally comes from certified seed producers who breed varieties for specific regions and needs. Beauregard is the most popular variety.

> This crop needs at least 150 frost-free days to develop, and about an inch of water a week is considered optimal.

> Average per acre sweet potato yields are 400 bushels. It’s not uncommon, though, to see 600 to 700 bushel yields.

For More Information:

> U.S. Sweet Potato Council

> Vardaman Sweet Potato Festival

> Sweet Potato Sweets

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