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Located at 202 Collins Street in Gleason, Steele Plant Company has provided your sweet potato needs for sixty-two years.  Better known as the “Taterhouse,” we have a rich family tradition that links back to Mr. W. C. “Claude” Steele and his wife Vernie Mable Phelps.  Mr. Steele began this business in 1950 as primarily a produce business that transported peaches, apples, and other items by truck across several states.  Mr. Steele had a knack for dealing with people and grew the business rapidly when he added sweet potatoes.  Mr. Steele’s only daughter, Martha, married Dudley “Butch” Sanders who was invited to join the business in 1953 after completion of his military service.  Mr. Sanders worked as a teacher and coach but also “moonlighted” to supplement his teaching income. This partnership grew a business that is still going strong today and one that has earned the title of Tennessee’s largest dealer with Mr. Steele’s grandson Ken and his wife Valerie and his granddaughter Kay and her husband Larry currently serving as partners.  Ken started full time in 1979 and Larry joined in 1981.  In the early 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s, many people in Gleason added to the rich tradition of Tatertown by having potato beds, but Steele Plant Company is the only one in business to date.  Even in earlier days, plants were shipped by railway and greyhound bus.  Harvested crops were hauled to train depots to be shipped out at night.

In 1974, Mr. Sanders made possibly the wisest business decision of all when he made contact and a lifelong friendship with Mr. Bart Brown of Omaha Plant Farms in Omaha, Texas. Steele Plant Company was acquired to drop ship sweet potato plants for them …. numerous other vendors soon followed.  At present, Steele Plant Farms ships for 22 seed catalog companies and a number of wholesale companies across the United States, shipping to all 50 states and occasionally to overseas customers.  In fact, a customer even flew from Switzerland to purchase only seven pounds of sweet potato plants.  Each year Ken, Valerie, Larry, and Kay attend both the sweet potato and the mail order gardening conventions to learn more about the latest growing techniques, newest equipment, and best advertising strategies to reach a broad spectrum of gardening enthusiasts.

Steele Plant Company currently provides ten varieties of sweet potatoes including four white varieties.  We work closely with the LSU Ag experiment station and growers in North Carolina to acquire the newest experimental releases.  We are proud to provide Tennessee State certified plants and potatoes.  This process consists of numerous, intensive inspections and regulations to prevent the spread of disease.  Certification shows that the family folks at Steele are striving to continue the rich tradition of our founders.

Many things have changed and improvements have been made over the years, but one thing that remains constant is our desire to provide the best quality plants and service possible to our customers.  Mr. Steele began with a few sweet potato beds located on Gibbs Road behind Q & S Electroplating. Growth caused the beds to be moved to Woods Road where expansion was possible, and then a purchase of the Gleason Nursery was made in 2013 so that more greenhouses could be secured to provide early plants for our southern gardeners.  Currently, this new nursery site has 17 covered greenhouses which are bedded in February for mid April shipment.  During March and April, bedding is outside in open air beds to produce later plants for our northern customers.  In 1982, we moved from our old pack house location on South Cedar to our current location on Collins Street.  In 2014, we added more storage for an annual harvest of 12,000-15,000 bushels. In 2009, the 135 acre Albert Wright Farm was purchased and is the current location for our sweet potato cultivation with a thirty-five acre annual crop rotation. In that same year, an irrigation system was put in place to assure a plentiful harvest for our shipping needs.

Perhaps the greatest change to our business has been in the shipping realm.  Years ago, orders were taken only by phone or were received in handwritten envelopes.  Now in the new age of technology, customers primarily place orders on the web, by email, or pay pal while others still prefer the old method of phone and postal communication.  Customers can order as few as 12 plants or can buy a truck load if desired.  Our sweet potato plants are shipped  by priority mail, Fed Ex, or UPS with trucks stopping by our location for daily pick up.  Just last year, an intelligent bar code computerized shipping system was implemented to hopefully provide better and faster delivery of this perishable vegetable plant to customers all over the United States.

Throughout the years, we have had the pleasure of working with hundreds of people in our workforce ranging from high school and college students, retired individuals, and all family members who could walk or even crawl.  For many years, “Mama Lucy” and several of her eighty year old sisters worked preparing our plants for shipment.  Every person with the name of Sanders or Steele was automatically hired …..no application or recommendation required!!!  During our prime shipping season from April to June, we employ approximately 40 people,  18-20 people when “setting “ or planting our crop, and 12-15 people help with harvesting.  After plants are set, hoed by hand, and irrigated during the summer months, they are dug with a mechanical digger that brings them up on a platform where they are placed in crates and huge 20 bushel bins for storage until they are needed for bedding season.  The new system of mechanical digging has definitely been an improvement from the old way of harvesting with a shovel and backbreaking labor.  The loyalty, dedication, and diversity of our workforce have been one of our greatest blessings over the years. Many employees have taken pride in our family approach.   These crews over the years have provided many wonderful memories and great experiences for the men and women of Steele for generations.

Mr. Steele and Mr. Sanders believed strongly in the Gleason community and provided assistance in many ways to those who fell on hard times or who reached out during times of need.  It is our mission to follow in their footsteps as we provide assistance to help Society of St. Andrews and Santa’s Helpers by providing jumbo sweet potatoes to these organizations that help citizens of Weakley County and surrounding areas that have food needs throughout the year. In addition, we also wish to express our support for and sincere gratitude to the amazing and hardworking women of the Gleason Gazelles for hosting the annual “Tatertown Special” each year.  This Labor Day festival encourages town pride, rekindles friendships, provides town improvements, and promotes the sweet potato heritage and tradition of Gleason----the place many so lovingly call home.  

Check out our website at www.sweetpotatoplant.com to view more information about one of America’s best and most nutritious gems of the garden.  One small baked sweet potato has 140 calories, 2 grams of protein, 40 mg. of calcium, iron, 8,100 I. U. of Vitamin A, niacin, and ascorbic acid which makes it rank in the top three vegetables by many health professionals.

Mr. Dudley “Butch” Sanders said it best in an article written by Dana Jennings years ago when he shared these thoughts, “Who has a plant that is more beautiful, easier to grow, costs so little, yields so much, and produces a more spectacular, colorful, nutritious, and delicious meal?” Stop by the Taterhouse for a visit, to share your favorite story of Mr. Steele or Mr. Sanders, or to get some plants to adorn your garden for the spring.  Better yet, let us harvest them for you….pick up some Beauregard or our personal favorites, the Georgia Jet, to grace your table for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner with your family.  After all, family is what it’s all about!!!    (Story by Kay Hudson)

 

 

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