HELENA-WEST HELENA - It's 2016, sweet potatoes are having a moment and Harvey Williams Jr. is thinking about vodka.
His brother, Kennard, a farmer in Phillips County, has just returned from a conference where he learned about the growing market for sweet potatoes. More people were eating fries, pies and other goodies made from the tasty orange tubers. And get this: there was a booth featuring vodka made not from regular potatoes, but sweet potatoes.
That got Harvey's attention.
What if he and his wife, Donna, opened a distillery and made vodka from the sweet potatoes, corn and wheat Kennard grew on the farm that had been in the Williams family for more than 70 years?
No, they weren't really drinkers - "square" is how Donna puts it with a wry smile - and they didn't know much about making alcohol, but none of that was going to stop them.
In 2017, Williams and Donna incorporated Delta Dirt Distillery and the next year set about renovating a building at 430 Cherry St., in downtown Helena-West Helena to house the distillery along with a full-service bar and well-appointed tasting room.
They began selling vodka in December 2020 to customers who came by the distillery and sold out on the first day; the tasting room officially opened in April 2021 and distribution to stores began Nov. 1, 2021.
Williams is the distillery's chief executive officer and Donna is chief brand officer. They have three children - sons Thomas and Donavan, who both work at Delta Dirt, and daughter TaHara. Thomas attended a distillery school in Kentucky and is Delta Dirt's head distiller. Donavan also plans to attend distillery school. TaHara has served in the Navy for the past 11 years and is stationed in Virginia. "She's our brand ambassador from afar," Williams says.
Last month, the distillery's flagship offering, Sweet Blend Vodka, which is available in more than 250 Arkansas stores, was awarded a coveted double gold medal at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, the largest contest of its kind in the world with about 5,000 entries this year.
The distillery recently introduced its Tall Cotton Gin, and is moving into the whiskey market with its Delta Blues Bourbon, which is in development and will age in oak barrels made by Gibbs Brothers Cooperage in Hot Springs. Like the vodka, both the gin and bourbon are sweet-potato based.
"I think we are sitting on something special here," Williams says.
Nancy McKee, executive director of the Phillips County Economic Development and Chamber of Commerce, agrees.
"Their investment in our community has been incredible," she says. "To have Delta Dirt come in with their unique marketing, their unique product and their unique facility for tourism and retail is something our community has not seen in a long time."
McKee and Williams attended an Arkansas District Export Council round table meeting last month that featured Penny Mordaunt, the United Kingdom's minister of trade.
"Harvey was the star of the show," McKee says. "He has such a belief in his product, a belief in this community and a belief in his family."
GREW UP FARMING
It's a sunny morning in April and Williams, a youthful 53 years old, is at the distillery's bar. Just beyond the bar through a large window Delta Dirt's alcohol-making machinery - which with its tanks, pumps, valves and copper looks like a steampunk fantasy come true - gleams.
Williams talks about growing up in the Lee County farming community of Rondo, his career and the path that brought him and his family back to this part of the world.
On Nov. 5, 1949, his grandfather, U.D. Williams, bought 86 acres of farmland at Poplar Grove in Phillips County. It was the same property where U.D.'s father, Joe Williams, was once a sharecropper. The land has been in the family ever since, and those 86 acres are represented on each bottle of Delta Dirt's Sweet Blend Vodka, which is 86 proof. On the back of every label, visible through the clear liquor, is a black-and-white photo of the dirt on the Williams farm.
Harvey is the oldest of three sons of Harvey Lee Williams Sr., and Lula Williams. Along with Kennard, there is his middle brother, Andre, who helps on the farm when he's not working as a trucker.
"I grew up farming," Williams says. "I knew it as my granddad's farm and then my dad took it over."
He recalls several Black-owned farms in the area during his childhood, though that's not the case today.
"Farming got really hard, and many of them had the same decision to make as white farmers: get out, get bigger or diversify. We lost a lot of Black farmers during that era. There are very few now. Even where our farm is, we're the only Black farm on that road. When I was growing up, there were houses and farms all through there."
When farming got tight in the '80s, his father diversified from the usual soybeans, corn and cotton and started growing sweet potatoes, squash, okra and other crops.
"He was a genius," Williams says. "He had to find markets for this stuff, and also resources for when there were problems. Nobody was growing that around here. I think he was ahead of his time in terms of being innovative and forward-thinking as a farmer."
Harvey Sr., died in September, but was able to witness Delta Dirt come to fruition.
"I was glad he got to see it," Williams says. "He was excited and proud for us. He was our 'Senior Advisor.' He was the first person I would call if I had a question about something."
A FUN RIDE
After graduating from Lee High School in Marianna in 1986, Williams attended the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville and earned a degree in agricultural engineering.
"I was going to come back and be a 'smart' farmer," he says with a chuckle. "Me and my dad were going to take this thing to the moon."
That did not happen. Instead, he married Donna, whom he'd known since high school, and went to work in Springdale for Cargill, the Minnesota-based food producer and distributor of agricultural products. From there, he took a job with the Sara Lee Corp., where he worked for 20 years and lived in Memphis, Cincinnati, Chicago and Dallas.
"I was learning a lot," Williams says of his time with the food company. "What made it really interesting was that I never did the same thing for those 20 years. I went from engineering, to procurement, to continuous improvement, to IT and implementing manufacturing systems into our plants. It was a fun ride."
All that experience would come in handy in getting Delta Dirt off the ground, though he still had things to learn.
"The manufacturing part didn't intimidate me at all. What I didn't know was that I was going to be building a brand, and then there were the taxes and having a good accountant and all the other facets of running the business."
He and Donna moved to Jonesboro in 2016, and Williams worked at the Shearers Foods plant in Newport. It was around this time that Kennard attended the farming conference with Harvey Sr. and Lula.
"You've got to know my baby brother," Williams smiles. "He was really excited about all the stuff he'd heard at the conference about what they were doing with sweet potatoes."
Kennard told him about a sweet potato vodka he'd tasted there. It wasn't very good, he said, but it was different.
"I latched onto that," Williams says. "As excited as he was about sweet potato fries and pies, I was excited about this vodka these guys were making. I could figure out how to do that."
He envisioned a business that would involve the farm and his family.
"I didn't want to farm every day, but I wanted it to be tied to the farm. This checks all the boxes for me. We grow the things we use in the distillery, so we are sustaining the farm through this business. We bring all our different talents to the table ... and I've been really blessed to have my two sons in here."
The early days were filled with lots of analysis; visits to distilleries; business planning; navigating the complicated licensing process on the local, state and federal levels and vodka testing.
"Let me tell you, there were plenty of bad batches," Williams says with a laugh. "A lot of distilling is trial and error."
At first, the distillery was going to be on-site at the farm, but Williams wanted it to be an attraction, a place where people could come hang out.
He settled on downtown Helena-West Helena and the 7,000-square-foot building at the corner of Cherry and Rightor streets that had sat empty for at least a decade. Renovations took up most of 2018 and 2019.
Williams was still working at Shearers as Delta Dirt was coming together. It wasn't until Dec. 31 that he left there and went to work full time at the distillery. He and Donna now live in Marianna, about 25 miles north of Helena.
Williams and Donna, who works remotely for Cotiviti, a healthcare analytics firm, had been thinking about making their way back to the Delta to be closer to family. Returning to the area, though, is sort of the opposite of what's been going on in these parts for the past decade.
RAISING SPIRITS IN THE DELTA
Helena-West Helena "saw the largest decline of any Arkansas city with more than 5,000 people, losing 22.5%, or 2,763 residents, between April 1, 2010, and April 1, 2020," according to a Dec. 26 Democrat-Gazette report headlined "Towns in Delta losing people, hope for change."
The city's current population is 9,519. To the north in Mississippi County, Blytheville and Osceola saw their populations drop more than 10%.
Williams was undeterred.
"I've always wanted to come back. We wanted to be closer to family, but we didn't know it was going to be this soon."
"It's been really good," Donna says. "The job in Newport was very demanding. He's a workaholic, and I was glad he let that go because if he kept going at the pace he was going, we were not going to get to enjoy any of this."
Delta Dirt's slogan, "Raising Spirits in the Delta," is multi-pronged. The spirits in each bottle are the result of crops raised here; they can raise the spirits of the person who responsibly enjoys them and the business itself can help lift the economic spirits of a region.
The distillery is a rare sign of life on Cherry Street. Many of the buildings on the once bustling main drag that housed merchants and businesses are empty, and some are falling down.
"I'll be honest, I didn't know how we would be received as a business here," Williams says. "We were even directly asked, 'Why would you build and invest so much money in Helena?' But you have to have your own sense of purpose for what you are doing."
McKee says that Williams and Delta Dirt have "put a spotlight on downtown Helena that has been turned off for quite a while."
MORE THINGS TO COME
Williams is answering questions as a customer walks in.
Bennie Howse grew up in nearby Marvell and lives in Little Rock. He's retired from the Army and gets back to Phillips County fairly often. Nowadays when he visits, he makes it a point to stop by Delta Dirt to grab a couple of fifths of Sweet Blend Vodka.
"It's got a real distinct, sweet taste," he says. "It's smooth. I put it on the rocks and drink it straight. I tell everybody that comes here, stop by [the distillery] and support them."
Speaking of support, a note on the label of each bottle produced by Delta Dirt proclaims its commitment to reinvest a portion of its profits in the community. The first donation was for $250 to acknowledge the accomplishments of the basketball program at Lee High School, the second was $500 to the Boys and Girls Club of Helena for improvements to its technology center.
Sharing his family's story and showing off the distillery to students is a highlight.
"I love giving tours of the distillery to young people. The Lee High School Future Farmers of America were in here last week," says Williams, a former FFA member himself. "To have young people asking about the process and the science behind this and talking to them about what is possible for them, it gave me a lot of pride."
Along with the distillery, Williams owns the two buildings next door and plans to open a coffee shop and a pizzeria in them. He also knows that at some point the distillery will need to build a site strictly for manufacturing.
The operation is currently capable of producing about 250-300 cases a month, Williams says. Demand right now is about 160 cases monthly, he says, and the company recently made its first delivery into Mississippi.
"We recognized pretty early that we were going to run out of capacity at this facility," he says.
His vision for Delta Dirt stretches far beyond the Natural State.
"This can be a national and international brand," he says. "That's our intention. We have a five-year plan, and we think this will resonate with so many people."
It's been quite a ride since that first inkling six years ago to start a distillery from the ground up that would turn sweet potatoes into vodka.
"In all honesty, I didn't know what any of this was going to look like," Donna says. "But I believed in Harvey. I knew that whatever it was going to be it would be successful, and it's been 10 times better than I would have imagined."
Harvey Williams Jr.
• DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: June 2, 1968, Little Rock
• MY FAVORITE CHILDHOOD MEMORY IS: Our end of the summer vacations. Destination ... it didn't matter.
• MY FIRST CAR WAS: An Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
• MY FANTASY VACATION DESTINATION: I have two. Outside the U.S., Africa; in the U.S., Alaska.
• I AM HAPPIEST WHEN: I'm with my family.
• THE BEST PART OF LIVING IN THE DELTA: Some of the best people on earth live here.
• THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE OF BEING A SMALL-BUSINESS OWNER: Finding the right resources to help meet all the demands of a small business owner.
• MY FAVORITE DRINK: It changes, but right now my favorite is a gin gimlet made with our newest release, Tall Cotton Gin.
• THE PROFESSIONAL ACCOMPLISHMENT I'M MOST PROUD OF: Opening the distillery and building a brand that resonates with so many.
• ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Steadfast