CHADBOURN – Some people call him Mr. Sweet Potato.
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 said 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 also is the brains behind Trinity Frozen Food, a sweet potato fry manufacturer that opened a plant in July in Pembroke.
“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.
Bailey Produce operates out of a 229,000-square-foot gated facility on U.S. 74 Alternate about a mile north of Chadbourn. Wooten called the operation “sweet potato central.” It features the most modern equipment in the industry and a workforce of almost 400, the company’s website says.
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 also 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 method uses forced-air curing and climate-controlled storage to enhance the taste and to extend the shelf life of the sweet potato.
Bailey Produce has a storage facility in Clinton on the edge of a vast sweet potato farm, and facilities in Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
In 1977, when he began at the company, which he inherited from his stepfather, it handled about 2.5 million pounds of potatoes a year, Wooten said. 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.
As the company began to grow, competitors had to follow suit, modernizing their facilities and using the packaging ideas.
Despite growth in the industry, consumption still was down when Wooten took the helm in 1991.
In the 1930s, the average American ate about 281/2 pounds of sweet potatoes a year. In 1993, annual consumption fell to an all-time low of 34⁄5 pounds per person.
The sweet potato typically was relegated to Thanksgiving or Christmas but was rarely eaten year-round, Wooten said.
He understood the hole in the market. Sweet potatoes were not sold or manufactured in other applications as was 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.
Wooten went on to form Trinity Frozen Foods, become one of its 30 owners and to sit on its board.
Trinity’s plant in Pembroke makes fries and cubed, mashed and pureed sweet potatoes, which often are used in desserts as a sweetener.
It started with 30 employees, and expectations are that it will expand to 150 employees within two years.