On the fourth Thursday each November, Americans gather to feast on turkey, nibble on cranberry sauce and give thanks. For a small, dedicated cadre of farmers north of Fresno and merchants in Los Angeles, Thanksgiving also means something else: yams.
Millions of red and yellow yams will be baked, cut open and smeared with butter today. Thousands more will be mashed, mixed with a little brown sugar and milk, baked, and sprinkled with marshmallows and served in casserole dishes as candied yams.
And almost all of the yams and sweet potatoes consumed today in Southern California will have been grown in Merced and Fresno counties and brought here by a small sales force in the wholesale produce markets along Central Avenue, southeast of downtown Los Angeles.
For California's 125 yam farmers, Thanksgiving sales are not small potatoes--the three weeks preceding the holiday will account for about 30% of their $30 million in revenue this year, experts said. For growers, packers, truck drivers and sweet potato salesmen alike, the season also means 18- to 20-hour days.
"During the holiday season these drivers are beat, they're just going back and forth . . . My wife says she goes to work, I'm on the phone. She comes back from work, I'm on the phone," said Mark Widder, a yams, potatoes and onions salesman for Potato Sales Co. in Los Angeles.
Widder and his fellow yam workers satisfy the cravings of an American public that associates yams overwhelmingly with the end of fall. "I think they're a must for Thanksgiving . . . but probably between January and November, I never cook them," said Laura Patterson, a Los Angeles resident and television producer who plans to prepare candied yams in her microwave oven today.
Demand for yams is seasonal, just as it is for turkeys and fresh cranberries. After Thanksgiving, the two most important seasons are Christmas and Easter, said Manuel E. Vieira, owner of A.V. Thomas Produce, a large, Merced County farmer of sweet potatoes. Most supermarkets stock sweet potatoes all year long. But sales surge during holidays because the root often is served with such holiday meats as turkey and ham and because stores launch promotional efforts then.
Farmers work all year long to prepare for the November onslaught. The yams sold in Southern California's stores are planted in March and harvested in August, September and October, to be dried and stored at 55 degrees to 60 degrees Fahrenheit in insulated warehouses for sale all year round. Much of the state's crop passes through Los Angeles' produce markets, from which wholesalers such as Potato Sales send shipments as far east as Memphis, Tenn. Widder said his company alone has sold more than 20,000 cartons holding more than 600,000 sweet potatoes in the past two weeks.
Only North Carolina and Louisiana lead California in the U.S. production of sweet potatoes, a family of plants that includes yams, said Bob Scheuerman, a farm adviser in Merced for the University of California's state-wide agricultural extension service. Residents of Opelousas, La., even hold an annual "Yambilee," a late October festival including baking contests, parades and a yam king and queen. The king wears a large, hollow model of a yam over his head.
Black slaves in the South were the first to apply the term "yams" to U.S. sweet potatoes, Scheuerman said. The slaves called the root "nyami," a common term in Africa for true yams, which are tubers. Louisiana whites adopted and modified the word, and began labeling their sweet potato crop "yams" as part of an advertising campaign in the 1920s, he said.
Despite higher wholesale prices for premium red yams--the most popular type of sweet potato in Southern California, supermarket prices remain low this Thanksgiving. Several chains have sold them for less than the wholesale price of 30 cents a pound as part of advertising campaigns to lure in customers who may buy more expensive groceries as well. "It's the one time of year when you see a (promotional) picture of yams in the papers," Widder said.
This year's harvest in California is slightly smaller than last year's plentiful 53,000-ton crop. But continued high wholesale prices of as much as $12 per 40-pound carton of No. 1 red yams--the best grade of garnet sweet potatoes--are keeping farmers happy in Merced County. About 80% of the state's sweet potato production grows in the county's sandy soil, Scheuerman said.
Fresno County accounts for most of the rest of the state's production. Almost all of San Bernardino and Orange counties' once-extensive fields have been paved over, said Howard Yip, a yam salesman at W. Fay Produce in Los Angeles. "I remember the days when I used to go out and solicit the farmers where Disneyland is," he said.
After 35 years of trading the root, Yip is considered the dean of Southern California's yam merchants.
High prices for the past two years come as a welcome relief for California growers, who are still recovering from a grinding shakeout that bankrupted some and drove down the acreage under sweet potato and yam cultivation to 6,600 acres this year from 9,200 acres in 1982. A lot of young farmers jumped into the sweet potato business in the early 1980s, pushing wholesale prices as low as $8 a carton for the best garnets, Yip said. Only last year did prices finally recover.
Demand has grown slowly but steadily in recent years, allowing prices to firm, Yip said. At the same time, rising prices for yam harvesting equipment and rising rents for the best land--as much as $350 a year per acre--are preventing young farmers from turning to the business.
"The growers had a pretty good year overall," said Joe Pehonsky, an avocado and yam salesman for Liberty Produce in Los Angeles. "They're making money."