The spirit of sweet success in Eastern North Carolina

Through a marriage of agriculture and business the states number one crop is grown and harvested in Duplin County and distilled and packaged in Greene County to produce Covington Vodka.

Under the hot rays of the sun, day in and day out, farmers are growing and harvesting sweet potatoes in the fields. The sweat, dirt, and hard work to produce a quality crop means even more to the farmers when that crop makes it to their family tables.”All we love doing is farming. It’s in my blood, and I guess I just love it too good,” said Jimmy Burch, Sr.Down in Faison, Burch’s ancestors have been on the Duplin County land since the 1760s. His parents took over the farming operation in 1977 when there was only 20 acres.”We were raised real poor, but we worked our tails off. The Lord smiled on me, and we’ve done very well,” said Burch.Those 20 acres have since grown to 8,000 acres, with 6,000 used as farmland. The main acreage of Burch Farms, 3,500 acres, is devoted to sweet potatoes—their largest crop in production—while the reminder of the land is harvested out for growing cabbage, collards, turnips, kale, butternut squash, cucumbers, and more.”The Covington variety is the best sweet potato grown in the U.S.,” said Burch. “The rich, sandy soil is good for them to grow in, and it gives us a nice, sweet potato.”Of the 130,000 acres of sweet potatoes grown in the United States, 95,000 of those are grown in North Carolina. Burch Farms produces approximately 3.5 million bushels of sweet potatoes a year making Burch Farms one of the top three sweet potato producers in the country.”The soil down here is ideal for ‘tators. East of I-95 we have the land they like,” said Burch.To be a top producer of sweet potatoes, Burch Farms hires 200 year-round employees and 350 during harvest season as they operate six days a week, taking Sundays to rest.One can find a number of their products in Food Lion, Harris Teeter, Aldi, local restaurants, and even behind the neighborhood bar.A few years back, Burch and his fellow farming friends were looking at ways to support the state in ethanol production. When an analysis revealed the yield from a sweet potato was less than the yield for corn, they realized ethanol production would not be cost effective for them.Instead, the unique idea and niche of making an alcoholic beverage from sweet potatoes was born as Covington’s Vodka began production.Going from potato sprouts to spirits has proved to be a successful venture that has brought locally grown sweet potatoes to the table in a new way. Small potatoes are carried from Burch Farms to Yamco in Snow Hill where they are cooked, diced, and pureed. Producing a small batch that captures 60 percent of the “heart” of the distillate results in a smooth taste and creamy texture—the perfect gourmet vodka.”This is what you share with people who have shared their best with you,” said Bill Heafy, plant manager of Yamco.Burch Farms is one of three owners of Yamco which produces aseptically packaged all natural sweet potato, spinach, pumpkin, butternut squash, and carrot purees. The plant also ferments and produces Covington’s Vodka to which Burch Farms is also one of the owners.”We are part of the growing industry, part of the food industry. We take farm and facilitate it to go to the table with the food processing side,” said Heafy.”It never ceases to amaze me at how smooth, crisp, and clean Covington’s Vodka is. It’s not the flavor, but the smell of butterscotch and caramel that is indicative of a finely roasted sweet potato. It tastes like elegance if you could put a flavor to elegance,” he added.Sweet potatoes grown and harvested from Burch Farms find its way to your table in a variety of products. Traditional sweet potatoes that accompany those pork chops; pureed baby food for your littlest family member; vodka that fills your happy hour cup; and even the chips you eat with your hotdog.”The family likes sweet potato casserole with sugar and cinnamon. Me, personally, I like them baked in the oven,” said Burch.Every Sunday for lunch all of the family gathers around the table. From Burch’s family to yours, there’s something sweet for everyone.