Guadalquivir River up, Juan Antonio Sánchez rowed in a small boat in the direction of the Sevillian town of Coria del Río. It is loaded with potatoes and sweet potatoes; will go down to Sanlucar de Barrameda with rice and oil. Heal the hunger of the Civil War and the shots of the Carabineros smuggling what the land gives. In a marsh converted into farmland, near that river, but 80 years later, another Juan Antonio Sánchez, grandson of the first and commercial director of Frusana, recalls the hard history. The sweet potato's past of the sweet potato contrasts with its booming present.
The annual production of 23,000 tons of sweet potato has already converted the 267 cooperative members of this company into the largest exporters of this tuber in Europe and sole suppliers of the Mercadona supermarket chain. The growth is far from stopping in the more than 600 hectares that already add up in the province. Difficult that Sanchez's grandfather could even imagine, despite the fact that, within the rules of the game, what farmers do today is not so far from the past. "We look for opportunism, thanks to our climate and that we are different farmers. We live from production gaps that other countries do not have, "summarizes Sanchez bluntly.
Unlike what happens in other parts of Spain, in Sanlúcar de Barrameda, the small farmer has never left the land. "That has meant that I have followed from parents to children and now, in the cooperative, we have an average age of 37 years," adds the commercial director. That new generation inherited from their ancestors some lands gained to the marshes with beach sands, in a warm climate, close to the natural park of Doñana and, therefore, protected from any urban aggression. In them, the sweet potatoes were still growing for self-consumption. "They removed so much hunger in the postwar period that they remained as something testimonial," Sánchez recalls.
But, around 2000, something changed. Driven by consumption in Catalonia, the sweet potato began to gain whole, thanks to its richness in hydrates and vitamins. It was also focusing the attention of the food industry, thanks to its sweetening and thickener power, which makes it an ideal ingredient for infant purées. "Until then, the best-known producers in the world were in North Carolina. Food began to enter Europe, thanks to the campaigns they did. We saw the opportunity and we took advantage of it ", explains the commercial. Year after year, the area that Frusana cooperatives use for the sweet potato grows and, with it, the tons collected. In 2013, the Spanish production of the tuber was 10,323 tons, of which Cádiz produced 6,291 tons, followed by 3,006 tons of the Valencian Community, according to data from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. In 2016, the country already produced 41,139 tons, 29,925 from the province of Cádiz. This exponential increase in Cádiz is driven by Frusana: of the total of 53,000 tons of vegetables grown in 2017, the sweet potato harvest reached 23,000 tons, followed by 12,000 tons of carrots by hand, a product in which they are also national leaders.
Eight years ago, Manuel Saborido, one of the cooperative members of the company, saw the sweet potato business. Along with four day laborers, the 59-year-old farmer harvests these days the tuber, cultivated from April to October in half of the 16,000 square meters of their land. "Before it was not salable and look now," Tertia Saborido in a break from the job. Being a delicate skin product, the collection has to be by hand. Only two machines are involved in the process: one that cuts the leaves off the surface and one that flips the earth before the manual harvest.
Despite the long growth time it needs, the sweet potato is profitable for the farmer. If no flood damages the crop – as the land is below sea level the danger is greater – each cooperative can charge between 40 and 60 cents per kilo, discounting all costs. The product coming from the lands of Sanlúcar, Chipiona or Rota is appreciated since it is cultivated in fine sands, so it is not necessary to wash them with brushes that could spoil them.
With these conditions of profitability and good product, 85% of Frusana's production is already destined in the European markets. Of the other 15% national, around 10% goes to the supermarket shelves of Mercadona as a direct supplier, for six years. "We work with multinationals of all kinds. Others only contemplate the cent, but Mercadona what does not argue is quality ", recognizes Sanchez.
These days, the activity in the treatment centers of the cooperative is frenetic. The big trucks enter and leave, while dozens of peons unload the boxes and introduce the sweet potatoes in a washing hopper. Then, some operators separate them in boxes, before passing the distribution trucks. Every day about 200 tons of sweet potato leave Frusana. Between day laborers and plant workers, Frusana generates up to 420 jobs, 60% of them, women. "We are the company that gives the most work in Sanlúcar", recognizes Sanchez in reference to a town that exceeds 30% unemployment.
Last year, the cooperative closed the year with sales of 32 million euros; 9.5 million were thanks to the sweet potato. When this campaign ends, it will be more, according to Sánchez: "We grow in annual turnover between 10 and 15%." It is the sweet revolution of Sanlúcar, for which Saborido and his men break out every morning with views of Doñana. "As long as the marsh does not drown, I'll live on this. It's hard, but the field is like that, "she says as she digs up a sweet potato.