How Scott Family Farms Grew From 60 to 14,000 Acres
If the late Linwood Scott Sr. could see his family’s farm today, there would be few similarities from the tobacco and soybean farm he knew with today’s large, diverse, and international operation.
“He wouldn’t recognize it,” says Linwood Scott Jr., his son, who is better known as Sonny. “If he had the same mentality he had in 1976, he’d think I was crazy. I might be. Who knows?”
“For the record, I don’t think he is,” adds Jeff Thomas, director of marketing at Scott Farms International.
If Sonny has been crazy about anything over his 50-plus years farming, it’s been his quest to expand the farm, ensuring it would be large enough to support his growing family.
“I am more or less content to stay where we are and manage what we are doing,” says Alice Scott, Sonny’s wife. “My husband always wants to expand and do new things. That’s very good because he has gotten us into the position that we are in today.”
In addition to tobacco and soybeans, Scott Farms now includes sweet potatoes, corn, and wheat across 14,000 acres surrounding the home farm in Lucama, North Carolina. From a 60,000-square-foot packing and shipping facility, Scott Farms exports 20,000 tons of sweet potatoes each year to the U.K. and Europe.
The building blocks for the success of Scott Farms started back in the late 1960s.
From Our January Issue: Guest Editor Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture
Why this story matters to me: "When I visited Scott Family Farms in October 2017, I was immediately impressed. This family-owned operation grew from a small 60 acres to 14,000 acres in 60 years. They’ve expanded not only in size, but also in what they produce and where they sell it, to become an international company. This is American family farming at its best.” – Sonny Perdue
Sonny Perdue speaks with Sonny Scott while touring the farm.
Alternative Cash Crop
“On October 6, 1968, my wife made the biggest, best catch of her life,” says Sonny.
That day marked the beginning of Sonny and the former Alice Honeycutt’s marriage, as well as the beginning of a modernized Scott Farms.
“He did very well, let me say,” Alice is quick to point out.
With today’s successful operation as evidence, the two have done extraordinarily well together. But it hasn’t always been easy.
“At the time, we were doing whatever we could do to put food on the table. That first year we were farming, we had 60 acres of tobacco and some corn and soybeans and managed to struggle and get through,” recalls Sonny, who served in the U.S. Army Reserve before coming back to the farm.
Over the next several years, Sonny and Alice expanded the operation – by renting additional acres – and the family – with sons Linwood (the 3rd) and Dewey.
In December 1976, Linwood Sr. passed away, leaving Sonny and Alice to take over the farm.
“My dad had to take over the farm at a very young age and not at a good time for agriculture,” says Dewey Scott, who was only 5 years old at the time. “He spent his whole life out there on the ragged edge to be able to make it grow and make it what it is here.”
As the owners of the farm and with two small mouths to feed, Sonny decided it was time to find another strong cash crop beyond tobacco.
“We decided we better start looking at something that might help us pay the bills if tobacco all of a sudden comes apart. Over the years, it pretty much has come apart from where we were in 1980,” explains Sonny.
So, in 1983, Scott Farms planted 15 acres to sweet potatoes. “It was a logical choice at the time,” says Sonny, explaining that sweet potatoes have similar cultural practices to tobacco in terms of land and the equipment necessary to prepare and transplant the crop. “In 1985, we started to package and market sweet potatoes. At that time, it was on a very small scale compared with where we are today.”
Quality From Field to Shelf
For the next decade, sweet potato production kept expanding – with all family members pitching in. “I stood on our original packing line and packed sweet potatoes for a lot of years,” says Alice.
In 1996, after graduating from college and a year working off the farm, Dewey decided it was time to come home and join his brother on the farm. “We wanted to branch out and sell our own brand of sweet potatoes into the market. Dad was looking for someone to start that and with my background in communications, that was sort of the obvious fit for me,” he says.
Expansion efforts continued with more acres and micropropagation. In the late 1990s, an out-of-the-blue request from a European buyer interested in purchasing sweet potatoes to sell abroad, planted the seed of taking Scott Farms international. “Many people can say that business decisions are made to solve this problem or that. However, this was done because of the thought that it would be cool to see our sweet potatoes overseas,” says Dewey, who is now vice president of sweet potato operations. “That’s where a lot of great ideas are born – not on a spreadsheet – but out of your heart.”
For about six years, Scott Farms sold sweet potatoes abroad through a buyer, before making the decision in 2006 to set up shop in the U.K. While the timing wasn’t intentional, Scott Farms sweet potatoes hit the market at the perfect time.
“When we first got into the market in 2000, sweet potatoes in Europe were completely exotic and few people were eating them. About the only place you could find them was in the U.K.,” explains Dewey. “We’ve seen that market develop from that to where sweet potatoes are almost a staple food in the U.K. European culture, as I have learned, seems to be more willing to try things and with the product being as healthy as it is, the interest and demand there just skyrocketed.”
With demand climbing, so have sales. That first year, Scott Farms shipped 125 container loads to the U.K. By 2018, that number grew 700% to 1,000 containers. Overall, U.S. sweet potato exports have been on the rise, increasing 505% from 100 million pounds in the 2007-08 market year to 605 million pounds in 2016-17, according to the USDA Economic Research Service. About 40% of that export market goes to the U.K. and another 20% to the Netherlands, where Scott Farms opened up another office in 2016.
At the same time, consumption at home has also grown from 4.2 pounds per capita in 2000 to 8 pounds per capita in 2017. To keep a good balance between domestic and international sales, Scott Farms has focused recent efforts on the U.S. market, aiming for a 55% domestic/45% international split. In addition to the offices overseas, a 60,000-square-foot packing and shipping facility built in 2015 has enabled Scott Farms to increase production exponentially.
While North Carolina is the leader in U.S. sweet potato production, Scott Farms is a rare entity as a vertically integrated sweet potato farm in the area.
“The reason we chose to do that and integrate and have a hand in every step of the chain was to have as much control of the product, as possible – how it’s cared for, and how it’s distributed,” explains Dewey. “We’ve always felt that the more control we have in every step of the operation and the less that depends on outside sources, the better the quality of the product at the end of the day.”
At the heart of that quality product is Scott Farms. “When Jeff Thomas joined the farm, he sold us on the idea of selling our brand and our name and telling our story. If someone goes into a store and buys sweet potato chips and sees Scott Farms, we’ve established that confidence and relationship with consumers,” says Dewey. Today, Scott Farms sweet potato chips are only sold in the U.K. and will hopefully be brought to the U.S. in 2019.
Workers harvest sweet potatoes in October.
Finding Farm Workers
A large labor force is necessary to harvest, sort, and pack the sweet potatoes as well as harvest other crops. Scott Farms employs 125 to 150 full-time employees and about 270 seasonal employees through the H-2A temporary agricultural worker visa program.
“It’s not a problem getting those workers, but it is a process and expense,” says Alice, who works with an attorney on the visa program. “While all the labor is going up for H-2A workers, since 2015 our income has decreased, and that’s creating a big problem for people in farming.”
Alice estimates that in addition to an hourly rate, the farm spends $1,000 per worker on transportation and housing, which Alice also oversees. “We are working with a local community college in the hope that we will get more people in our area involved in ag,” she adds.
Lineage of Tobacco
While sweet potatoes have grown to be the most profitable crop for Scott Farms, tobacco is still big money, as Linwood puts it.
“We are in that business (sweet potatoes and tobacco) and grain crops just for the rotation,” says Linwood, vice president of tobacco and farm operations. For sweet potatoes, the goal is to have two crops in between plantings. A longer rotation is needed for tobacco. “With tobacco we try to skip at least three years, and it’s even better if we can skip four to reduce disease pressure.”
Scott Farms plants 1,200 acres to tobacco, 3,000 to sweet potatoes, 1,000 in wheat, 1,000 in corn, and 6,000 to 7,000 in soybeans. “Our soils are sandier and just not conducive to corn. Fields around here are small and spread out, so it’s not economically feasible for us to put irrigation on,” he explains. While corn yields have been high the past two years at around 180 bushels per acre, the average is typically closer to 140. Soybean yields come in around 40, and wheat at 60 to 70 bushels per acre is a good yield for the Scotts.
While Linwood understands the ethical concerns around tobacco, he says for him, it’s a business decision. “Tobacco in this part of the world has sent a lot of kids to school, fed a lot of families, and built churches and hospitals. I wish people realized what it meant to the people of North Carolina,” he says. “I’ve been around tobacco ever since I was born. My birthday is in June and we had an employee that recently retired that every year around my birthday would remind me where they were cropping tobacco the day I was born.
“My great-granddaddy grew tobacco, my granddaddy, my dad, and me. It’s all I know, and I consider myself a tobacco farmer,” adds Linwood.
Workers harvest, sort, and process tobacco at Scott Farms.
Despite all of the work necessary to make Scott Farms what it is today, family was always a priority. “If we had a ball game or an event, he (Sonny) was always there. That’s why we’re here, because we’ve seen the sacrifices he’s made and at the same time, family always came first,” says Dewey.
That’s likely why a large contingent of the Scott family is involved in the operation. In addition to Sonny, Alice, Linwood, and Dewey, Linwood’s wife, Kim, is the office manager, and Dewey’s wife, Heather, also works in the main office overseeing accounts payable.
Linwood and Kim have three children – Jena, 24, Lindsey, 21, and Lin, 13. Jena’s husband, Reid Petway, started working on the farm recently. Dewey and Heather have two sons – DJ, 12, and Charlie, 10.
“One thing that makes this whole operation go is the fact that the family is as close as it is. Everybody gets along and that’s important to me and important for the success of this farming operation. Everybody grabs hold of the rope and pulls in the same direction,” says Sonny. “Our goal is to continue to grow this farming operation at the pace that it needs to in order for it to continue to be profitable and viable.”
There are three generations of Scotts at the family farm in Lucama, North Carolina.