By Leigh Zaleski
YORK, Pa. (AP) — About eight years ago, just for the heck of it, Larry Frey decided to try growing sweet potatoes in his family's garden. Everyone in his family liked the vegetable.
The 59-year-old Warrington Township resident said he was surprised by a plentiful harvest of large sweet potatoes and felt he could do something more with the crop. In 2006, he ordered 100 plants from a university in North Carolina and sold the sweet potatoes he harvested at a roadside stand. The following year, he tried selling some at a produce auction in Lancaster County, but he said he couldn't compete with the large buyers and he wasn't able to make a profit.
So he decided to bring his product straight to the public. In 2008, he hosted his first Sweet Potato Fest in Dillsburg, during which he sold freshly dug sweet potatoes and delicacies made with the vegetable.
His festival was a success. Over the last several years, he has expanded his small business. Now, he plants 2,000 sweet potato plants and harvests about 6,000 pounds of sweet potatoes each year. He also hosts his festival in several locations throughout south-central Pennsylvania.
On Sept. 28 and Sept. 29, he set up shop in the parking lot of Brain Balance Center on Carlisle Road in West Manchester Township. When you drive by, don't expect to see a festival with a lot of fanfare. It's Frey, his family and his sweet potatoes.
"This is pretty low budget," Frey said.
The day of each festival, he said, he starts getting ready at 4 a.m., when he bakes 15 to 20 sweet potatoes and prepares 5 gallons of a cream-based sweet potato soup. His wife created the recipe. He finishes those items by 6 a.m., then he and his family -- wife, Gwen; son, Brett; daughter, Lindsey Gilbert; and son-in-law, Jarrod Gilbert — load up a fryer, a small gas stove, tables, a tent and sweet potatoes, among other items, and head to their location.
Frey said people enjoy the quality and freshness of his products. He and his family do most of the planting and harvesting by hand, and they cut the sweet potatoes for french fries on site.
In recent years, sweet potatoes have become popular — likely because of their touted nutritional value and versatile flavor profile — giving the white potato some competition when it comes to spud of choice for french fries. He said he wasn't following a trend when he started growing the vegetable. It was just a coincidence.
Frey, who works full-time as a laborer, said he started this endeavor because he wanted to see if he could create something that could be successful.
His son, Brett, said he enjoys watching the plants grow from start to finish.
Frey said he doubts he'll increase his crop size or expand his festivals to include products other than sweet potatoes. He likes sweet potatoes, and others seem to like them, too.
"When you pull into my place, there's no other choice," he said. "You have sweet potatoes, or you have nothing."
'We're not yams'
When working his festivals, Larry Frey wears an orange T-shirt advertising his business. The front displays a sweet potato with vines as arms and legs, wearing a smile and sunglasses on its face. The back says, "We're not yams."
Frey said many people mistake sweet potatoes and yams. However, if it's grown in York County, it's a sweet potato. Yams, which are native to Africa and Asia, are grown in the sub-tropics. Sweet potatoes grow in 100 to 150 days. Yams require almost a year of frost-free weather and heat.