Back in the 1950s it wasn't uncommon for families in the rural south to have a backyard garden and sell their surplus crops for a little extra money. In Gleason, Tennessee, the cash crop was sweet potatoes. This is how our little town of Gleason, Tennessee earned the title "Tater Town USA." Many households in Gleason grew sweet potatoes. During the harvest, the sweet potatoes were brought to a central warehouse and sent to various vendors in the county.
In 1950 Claude Steele began a produce business that transported peaches, apples, and other crops by truck across numerous states. His business grew rapidly when he added sweet potatoes to his offerings. Three years later his son-in-law, Dudley "Butch" Sanders, joined the produce business. Dudley worked as a school teacher and coach at Gleason School while moonlighting at the office with his father-in-law to supplement his income.
They continued their "day jobs" for much of the year. But in the spring months they focused on sweet potatoes. Before too long, Steele Plant Company became the largest sweet potato dealer in Tennessee.
In 1974, the Steele-Sanders family decided to begin working with Bart Brown of Omaha Plant Farms in Omaha, TX. Steele Plant Company was acquired to drop ship sweet potato plants for Brown's company. Currently, we still partner with Omaha Plant Farms which allows us to offer quality onion plants to our customers. Since this partnership, many other vendors have requested the services of our Gleason business.
Dudley and his wife Martha had two children, Ken and Kay, who joined the family business. Ken and his wife Valerie, along with Kay and her husband Larry Hudson, currently serve as partners. Ken started full time in 1979 and Larry joined in 1981. In 2020 Ken's son-in-law, Joe Baumgartel, joined the family business to help with day to day operations. To this day, five generations have contributed to what is a strong family tradition.
Over the years Steele Plant Company made a transition from focusing on the sweet potatoes themselves to raising the plants for families and businesses around the country. The business has grown from a small patch of land on Gibbs Road to a 135-acre farm purchased in 2009. The current location cultivates sweet potatoes on an approximately 35-acre annual crop rotation. In 2012 Steele Plant Company purchased a 7-acre nursery to grow and pull their sweet potato slips in 33 raised beds inside of 17 greenhouses, 27 outside raised beds, and numerous field beds when extra space is needed.
Seasonally, Steele Plant Company ships around 4.5 million plants to all 50 states from their downtown location in Gleason. We fulfill thousands of online, mail-in, or phone orders to individuals buying a few dozen plants or greenhouses purchasing larger quantities. Steele Plant Company also drop ships for 27 retail and wholesale companies across the United States.
This small-town business has provided many teenagers with their first job. For years teenagers and adults have learned the value of hard work while pulling, wrapping, setting, hoeing, bedding, and harvesting sweet potatoes. The family folks at Steele have also provided seasonal work for retirees during the hectic shipping season.
Steele Plant Company is also proud to support other hometown businesses, our K-12 school programs, the Rotary Club summer park program, the Gleason Volunteer Fire Department, Santa's Helpers, local church food pantries, the Gleason Library, and numerous other Gleason endeavors. Steele Plant Company proudly contributes approximately 25,000 lbs of sweet potatoes each year to feed the hungry through the efforts of the Society of St. Andrews.
Each year the family attends the National Sweet Potato Convention to learn about the latest growing techniques, new and improved varieties, the newest equipment, and the best advertising strategies to reach a broad spectrum of gardening enthusiasts. Steele Plant Company also invests a significant amount of time and money to keep fresh, micro-propagated seed in stock from select university sweet potato extensions in hopes of producing the best quality slips available.
Now in it's 71st year of operation, Steele Plant Company stands behind each plant we sell to the consumer. We want to continue this business year in the tradition of our founders, Claude and Dudley. Each instilled in us the desire to give the best quality plants and service possible.