A Californian in his mid-60s has become a familiar sight at grocery markets from coast to coast.
It’s in the produce section where the man can be seen lovingly gazing at sweet potatoes and yams, and for good reason.
Manuel E. Vieira is president of A.V. Thomas Produce, Livingston, Calif., a company that sells about 25% of all the sweet potatoes and yams grown in California.
Regardless of where his travels take him, regardless whether the trip is for business or pleasure — or both, Vieira’s schedule always includes that grocery market visit.
“Of course, it’s the first thing that I do,” he said. “Sweet potatoes and yams are my pride and passion.”
The first chapter of the family-owned and -operated company’s chronicles dates back to 1920, when Vieira’s uncle, Antonio Tomas, emigrated from the Azores to California. After more than three decades of growing a variety of crops on the San Joaquin Valley’s west side, Tomas moved east an hour’s drive to the Livingston-Atwater area.
It was there he would concentrate on sweet potato and yam crops and where in 1960 he would found A.V. Thomas Produce.
The learning curve for Uncle Antonio was not a steep as one might suspect, Vieira said. While Portugal is not known for sweet potato production, the sandy soil of the Portuguese archipelago known as The Azores is perfect for growing sweet potatoes. They are common in family gardens, Vieira said.
As his uncle honed his tuber growing skills, Vieira’s mother packed young Manuel off to Brazil to earn a college degree in business administration. Growing sweet potatoes was not among his career choices, he said.
In 1972, Uncle Antonio beckoned. Vieira — by then married to his wife Laurinda and their three young children — to move to California, where he would spend the next five years at his uncle’s side learning the sweet potato trade from the ground up.
In 1977, Uncle Antonio had another idea: Manuel and Laurinda should buy A.V. Thomas Produce. The transaction would bring a series of breakthroughs.
“For instance in 1977, the company was planting 70 acres. Today we have 1,850 acres — just in organic,” Vieira said.
A.V. Thomas was among the first major grower-shippers to embrace organics. Starting with just 10 acres of organic potatoes in 1988, the company has become the nation’s largest grower-shipper of organic sweet potatoes and yams, Vieira said. The company also has 1,500 acres of conventionally grown tubers.
Under Vieira’s tutelage — and in more recent years with the support of sons Carlos and Ricardo Vieira — volume has skyrocketed. A.V. Thomas marketed 1.5 million pounds of potatoes in 1976. In 2009, the volume exceeded 100 million pounds, Vieira said.
Not just seasonal treats
Overall, California’s production of sweet potatoes and yams has nearly quadrupled since the late 1970s and is second only to North Carolina in annual volume, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Much of the credit must go to Manuel Vieira — and more recently to his sons too.
In large part, the increase can be traced to Manuel Vieira’s conviction that his products should not be seasonal items.
“When I first told the industry that we could market sweet potatoes year-round, they didn’t believe me,” he said. “Now we have to.”
Until the 1980s, retailers usually stocked sweet potatoes and yams only for the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holidays, he said.
“There was always a gap from May to September or October,” Manuel Vieira said. “I thought that was a big mistake.”
University of California researchers developed new varieties, and A.V. Thomas and others began to stagger plantings. The resulting longer seasons and increasing volumes created new problems.
By 1987, the single packing and storage shed at A.V. Thomas was bursting at the seams.
“We couldn’t get all the orders out,” Manuel Vieira said.
The solution was a massive construction program that now finds a dozen buildings covering a total of 300,000 square feet.
Two of the units contain six packing lines, while the remaining 10 buildings are for storage, Manuel Vieira said.
“They have the right temperature, the right atmosphere. They circulate the air to keep the product in good shape,” he said. “We load 24 hours a day, 12 months a year.”
New buildings and equipment are just some of the innovations at A.V. Thomas.
New products also helped to boost sales.
As sweet potato fries have grown in popularity, A.V. Thomas has been a major supplier to processors, Manuel Vieira said.
Working in concert with Carlos Vieira, Manuel Vieira and A.V. Thomas developed and began marketing single shrink-wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes and Babies, several small yams packed in trays. Carlos Vieira also introduced in recent years 2-, 3-, 5-, 10- and 15-pound bags.
The skyrocketing growth in the state’s sweet potato volumes over the past 30 years begs the question whether demand will keep up with supply. Manuel Vieira said he is not concerned.
In the last 30 years or so, he said, the U.S. population has increased by more 100 million persons.
“In another 20 years, we’re going to have another 100 million, and they’re going to keep eating,” Manuel Vieira said.
Employees bring success
Manuel Vieira takes little credit for the company’s success, preferring instead to point to his employees.
“I have the best in the world,” he said. “I’m talking managers, supervisors, salespeople, office people, mechanics, accounting, shipping and packing people.”
During the peak of the season, those people number 800. The company’s payroll is the third largest in Merced County, Manuel Vieira said.
Carlos agrees with his father about the company’s employees. Family ownership tends to nurture closeness with the employees, he said.
Nonetheless, he places the bulk of the responsibility for the company’s success on his father’s shoulders.
“He’s been an inspiration to my brother and me and to the whole industry,” he said.
As he begins to consider retiring, Manuel Vieira, 64, said Carlos and Ricardo Vieira are ready to take over. He will leave them, he said, with his formula for success.
“Thank the good Lord every day and never take things for granted,” he said.