Ken and Robin Thornhill

Ken Thornhill and wife Robin during the at the 57th annual meeting of the United States Sweet Potato Council in New Orleans. (Submitted photo)

A Wisner native who has long been not only a producer, but also a voice for the sweet potato industry as a whole, was honored for his contributions during the 57th annual convention of the United States Sweet Potato Council.

Ken Thornhill was presented the Council’s Distinguished Service Award during the convention held Jan. xxx in New Orleans.

“I feel very honored to have been awarded that,” Thornhill said.

Now 76 and looking at retirement, Thornhill has been farming sweet potatoes for 47 years. He began his farming career following an accident which claimed the life of his father, C.L. “Buddy” Thornhill, in 1972. His father had been growing sweet potatoes for 11 years before that.

“His accident was in September and the crop was yet to be brought in,” Ken Thornhill said about the life circumstance that led to his change of career.

At the time, Thornhill was working in industry. He holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in chemistry from Northeast Louisiana University and pursued studies toward a PhD in Chemical Physics at LSU.

Thornhill not only took over his father’s farming operations, he went on to become an active member of the National Sweet Potato Council, serving as president in 2014; the Louisiana Sweet Potato Association, serving three terms as president, and the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission. He is also an active member of the Louisiana Farm Bureau Federation   where he has been an effective voice in creating change which has benefited the industry. He has served throughout his career on the Farm Bureau sweet potato advisory committees and the Franklin Parish Farm Bureau board.

 Tara Smith, Research Coordinator of the Sweet Potato Research Station, said Thornhill has left an indelible mark on the Louisiana and national sweet potato industries.

 “Ken Thornhill is a close friend and valued mentor.  He has worked side by side with LSU AgCenter sweet potato faculty through the years.  He has taught me much of what I know about the crop and I will forever be grateful for his guidance and his leadership in our industry,” Smith said.

“Despite recent bad weather years, insect-related challenges and languishing prices, Ken has always persevered.  He is an example to all, on how hard work, determination and a good attitude can result in sustainability and success,” she said.

Smith said Thornhill has always maintained a close relationship with the LSU AgCenter and the academic community.  He worked with industry and academic collaborators to develop a tape transplanter and more recently a modified bulk harvester.

 At one time Thornhill grew around 1,000 acres, but more recently has reduced that to about 260 acres as he prepares for retirement.  From that his farming operation produces around 100,000 bushels which is sold under contract to Lamb-Weston. 

 Asked about some of the challenges he faced as a sweet potato farmer, Thornhill explained how such challenges as the xxx weevil affected the industry.

“Until we had a change in regulations, the fact that you were infected with the weevil would prohibit you from marketing your potatoes in any sweet potato growing area,” Thornhill said.

Thornhill said producers affected had to go “well north” to areas such as Chicago and New York where the crop is not grown to sell their potatoes.

A change in regulations helped make it possible for affected growers in Louisiana to sell there potatoes here.

“What we’ve got with the regulations now is we are able to send sweet potatoes to Lamb-Weston for their plant in Delhi. That has been a tremendous boon to growers in Louisiana,” Thornhill said.

Thornhill explained that the processes used to prepare the sweet potato products eliminates problems that would be experienced in selling the effected raw product.

The Louisiana Sweet Potato Association and the United States Sweet Potato Council helps farmers tackle issues like that of the weevil.

Thornhill said during the annual conferences, growers and others involved in the industry get together to discuss technical issues and exchange ideas.

Another example he offered was related to grading for raw potatoes.

“One year I brought resolutions to recognize a new grade of potato, the little small bakers that you are familiar with now,” Thornhill said. 

“The council agreed and we petitioned the USDA for that grade and it is designated as Petite No. 1.

So it gave us another market for the small potatoes,” he said.

Thornhill noted that such changes which help growers sell their product are important.

Thornhill noted that Louisiana’s sweet potato acreage has dropped over the last 20 years. He said for those growers in the state today, the Delhi plant has provided a market for their product.

“We do not have but a fraction of the market share that we used to enjoy, say like 20 years ago. The fresh market has shifted to North Carolina,” he said.

The decline has been a combination of things, he said. The weather has been one of those factors.

“Gustav hit us in 2008, and in one night’s time I lost 800 acres,” he said.

He said that loss equated to over $1 million for his operation.

 Growers are also getting older, he said.

“It’s a tough business,” he said. 

Thornhill said North Carolina is now experiencing some of the same problems Louisiana growers have experienced.

Asked about the future of his sweet potato farm, Thornhill said he is working on plans to sell or lease his operation. 

Thornhill and his wife Robin have been married 55 years. They have two children, Shaun and Lizz, and five grandchildren. 

He and and his wife currently reside in Wisner, La., where he said he plans to live out his retirement.

In addition to his professional affiliations, Thornhill is active in his church, First Baptist of Wisner, where he teaches a Sunday School class. Thornhill is a Vietnam Veteran having served as a company commander in the Corps of Engineers. 

He said in retirement he plans to spend time at his camp fishing and hunting and “just relaxing.”

“The entirety of the industry certainly wishes Ken and Mrs. Robin all the best in retirement,” Smith said.

The United States Sweet Potato Council is a voluntary organization which serves as the advocate for the economic well-being of U.S. sweet potato growers. The Council supports the sweet potato industry by, among other things, monitoring federal issues affecting growers, lobbying on federal issues important to growers and providing a forum for bringing growers and issues of diverse regions together on a national level.

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