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Southern Produce Distributors first to successfully ship sweet potatoes to Europe

In 1894, Henry C. Precythe founded what would over the following century evolve into Southern Produce Distributors Inc., now headquartered in Faison, NC. It was operated under his name until his death in 1933.

His grandson, Stewart Precythe, now the president and chief operating officer, told The Produce News that since the mid-1800s, the Faison region was known for the large summer crops produced there.spd-picsc2012-251Kelley Precythe, sales representative, with his father, Stewart Precythe, president of Southern Produce Distributors.

“My grandfather sold fresh vegetables during the season, and the rest of the year he traded in mules, horses and supplies,” said Mr. Precythe. “My dad, Harold S. Precythe, started working at age 13. In 1939, he finished high school and opened Harold S. Precythe Produce Company. It was a seasonal vegetable producer, and he started shipping sweet potatoes that same year.”

During his early years in business, Harold met Joseph King, a commission merchant at the Baltimore terminal market during the 1920s and 1930s. Mr. Precythe said that when the United States entered World War II, Mr. King went to work for the government procuring vegetables for all of the Army bases east of the Mississippi River. Although he lived in Baltimore, he traveled to Faison every summer to procure produce.

“My dad and Joseph formed a close friendship,” said Mr. Precythe. “He told my father that he wanted to leave Baltimore and move to Faison, and so in 1946 they formed a partnership and started Southern Produce Distributors. They also started the Faison Fruit & Vegetable Exchange, which at the time was the largest privately owned auction market on the East Coast.

From May 15 to Aug. 1, Southern Produce Distributors shipped 1.5 million packages every year. Faison Fruit & Vegetable Exchange had between 1,000 and 1,200 growers supplying it with vegetables. It was in operation until the late 1990s, when it closed due to labor shortages.

For the next couple of decades, Southern Produce Distributors continued to ship vegetables in the summer, and it also had started to ship sweet potatoes from September until after Easter. The company handled strawberries out of Faison, blueberries out of Burgaw, NC, and green beans and other vegetables out of Lake City, SC.

“By the time these other deals ended in mid-May, the vegetable season in Faison would be gearing up again,” said Mr. Precythe. “From mid-August to early September, the company would ship sweet potatoes out of Virginia’s Eastern Shore, North Carolina, South Carolina and Louisiana.

“In 1964, my father bought Joseph King’s share of Southern Produce Distributors,” he continued. “I grew up unloading the farmers’ vegetables and loading all night in what was a 16- to 24-hour operation because the Faison vegetable volumes were so huge.”

In the early 1970s, Mr. Precythe joined his father’s company full time after graduating from Atlantic Christian College in Wilson, NC, with a degree in business. At the time the company handled about 75 percent vegetables and berries, and about 25 percent sweet potatoes.

The company began to expand to become a year-round business. Mr. Precythe said he felt that the company’s future was in sweet potatoes because they would allow him to stay at his home base throughout the year.

“The vegetable deal grew very big from the early 1970s through the 1990s,” he said. “As smaller farmers got out of the business, we took 15 to 20 of the largest growers and began packing and marketing for them out of our packinghouse and acting as a sales agent.”

One day in 1986, another government buyer for military commissaries, who, like Mr. King, traveled to Faison every summer to procure fresh produce, was speaking with Mr. Precythe. He mentioned that it would be really nice if the government could send sweet potatoes to troops at commissaries in Europe at Thanksgiving and Christmas.

“I told him that I could do it,” said Mr. Precythe. “He said it had been tried before and failed. I asked him why he procured all of his vegetables from Southern Produce, and he said it was because we provide the best quality and service. So I convinced him that we could provide the same quality and service in shipping sweet potatoes to Europe. That year we shipped the first successful sweet potato program to Germany.”

About five years later, the company hired an international salesperson, and started traveling to Europe to meet people and introduce its “Pointer” brand of sweet potatoes.

Today the company ships to all military commissaries in Europe. Mr. Precythe noted that his company is responsible for starting the U.S. sweet potato export program to Europe, which now includes mainstream retailers and foodservice operations.

Southern Produce Distributors’ sweet potato business continues to expand and flourish, and every year it focuses more on sweet potatoes and less on other vegetables. Currently, about 70 percent of its business is in sweet potatoes, but it also has a processed pepper deal that handles between 150,000 and 200,000 pounds per day from mid-June through mid-August.

The company’s sweet potato export markets are the United Kingdom, Spain, France, Italy, Germany, Holland, Sweden and Belgium, and it sells to a distributor, which markets them to Russia.

Mr. Precythe’s son, Kelley, joined the company full time following his graduation from Cape Fear Community College in 2003, having earned a degree in business. He has worked seasonally with his father since he was 12.

On April 19, 1988, the company suffered a horrendous fire. The refrigerated building in Faison, which was 275 feet long, 300 feet wide and 30 feet high, was completely destroyed. The fire started on Sunday and was still burning the following Tuesday.

“That Monday morning, from an office in a separate location, we were selling sweet potatoes and packing out of another grower’s facility,” said Mr. Precythe. “As customers were calling to find out if we would be able to honor their orders, I would tell them that our company was built on integrity and its word is its bond. By the time the Faison Fruit & Vegetable Exchange opened on May 20, we were completely rebuilt with a packing facility and coolers. We rebuilt the same size facility, but a year later we added an adjacent building of equal space, thereby doubling our space.”

The company suffered another fire in April 2009 in the same warehouse, but this time it was not a total loss. Most of the sweet potato storage area was destroyed, and the packing area was slightly damaged. Once again the company made a fast recovery.

When Mr. Precythe’s father died in 1984, some produce professionals came together wanting to do something in his memory. The Harold S. Precythe Memorial Golf Tournament was started at the Southern Wayne Country Club in Mount Olive, NC.

“The tournament continues today,” said Mr. Precythe. “The first year we raised five or six thousand dollars, but over the following years it raised over half a million dollars for scholarship funding. It funds three scholarships each year. This year we plan to gift four scholarships at $5,000 for four years. As of now, we have gifted 32 scholarships.”

The company plans to expand its sweet potato operation in the near future by building another warehouse and storage facility that is 300 by 300 feet and 30 feet tall.

“In August, we hired a lifelong friend of Kelley’s, Sterling Cook, as our new chief financial officer,” said Mr. Precythe. “He worked in the corporate world since college, but he has now joined our company on a permanent basis.”