North Carolina Sweet Potatoes Take Root
Pause and picture ravenous dinosaurs chomping down on sweet potatoes. Implausible as this may seem, sweet potatoes date to prehistoric times, and some scientists believe plant-eating dinosaurs might have feasted on these tasty vegetables.
Fast-forward to 2014. Dinosaurs have been extinct for 65 million years, but sweet potatoes are thriving in the Coastal Plain region of North Carolina.
At Leggett Farming Partnership, based in Nashville, sweet potatoes are a year-round enterprise. Sue Leggett manages the greenhouse while her husband, Brent, serves as general manager and oversees sales. Late January finds her propagating mother plants in a 300-by-45-foot greenhouse. From bedding to harvest, her farm’s sweet potato season won’t wrap until November.
The Leggetts sell three varieties of harvested sweet potatoes to a local packing house, which in turn sells the crop to wholesalers.
They also raise and sell plants for other sweet potato farmers through micropropagation, the art and science of growing plantlets in tissue culture.
“Since we produce certified seed, quality is everything for us,” Sue Leggett says.
Sweet Potatoes Are Nutritious & Delicious
Johnny Barnes, a founder and president of the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute in Benson, N.C., is actively engaged in promoting sweet potatoes and all of their uses. “Our mission is to generically promote U.S. sweet potatoes,” he says.
The ever-expanding list of value-added uses for sweet potatoes includes fries, chips, puree, baby food, pet food and beverages.
“A great group of forward-thinking, ambitious leaders throughout the production chain enthusiastically pushes the envelope,” Barnes says. “The North Carolina SweetPotato Commission spearheads the effort.”
The commission extols the many virtues of sweet potatoes.
Considered a superfood, sweet potatoes serve as an excellent source of vitamins A and C, contain more fiber than a bowl of oatmeal and more beta carotene than 23 cups of broccoli, and are free of cholesterol, fat and gluten. One medium sweet potato has just 103 calories, and despite their name, sweet potatoes are diabetic friendly, causing no blood sugar spike.
As consumers discover the nutritional benefits, that helps the approximately 350 commercial sweet potato farmers in North Carolina. In 2013, they grew 53,000 acres for a total of 212 billion individual sweet potatoes with a farm gate value of $228.9 million.
Barnes also serves as president of Spring Hope-based Farm Pak Products Inc., the sweet potato marketing arm of Barnes Farming Corp., which he runs with his parents. His family’s operation ranks No. 1 in the U.S. for total owned sweet potato acreage. They grow several varieties of the crop, including 800 acres of certified organic sweet potatoes.
Barnes is quick to credit North Carolina State University’s Horticultural Science, Biological and Agricultural Engineering, and Food Science departments with their innovations in sweet potato variety development, state-of-the-art facilities and new product development that propel the orange gems to new pinnacles throughout the world.
The Sweet Potato Growing Process
Dewey Scott knows all about the global appetite for sweet potatoes. He manages the sweet potato growing, packing and shipping business of Scott Farms Inc. in Lucama, which he operates with his parents and brother. In 2000, they started marketing their sweet potatoes in the United Kingdom. Five years later, they formed an international subsidiary, Scott Farms UK Ltd., which now sells sweet potatoes throughout Europe.
Here in North Carolina, they grow sweet potato seedlings by two different methods.
“We purchase micropropagated seedlings from the Micropropagation and Repository Unit at North Carolina State University and raise them in our greenhouses until they are ready for transplanting,” Scott says. “Other sweet potatoes are grown directly in outdoor beds from seed potatoes we produce the previous year.”
SEE MORE: Our Favorite Sweet Potato Recipes
In the beds, seed potatoes are placed as close as possible without stacking them. Two lines of drip tape for irrigation are installed as the seed beds are covered with soil. They then cover the beds with plastic, punch holes in the plastic to allow air to circulate, and add water and nutrients through the irrigation tape.
“Irrigation is key to growing quality plants and assuring a good stand of sweet potatoes,” Scott says. “To get a good, uniform stand, we irrigate if there has been no rainfall.”
For the Leggetts, seed production is a three-year process. “During year one, our ‘elite’ plants are grown using strict sanitation practices,” Leggett explains. “Cuttings are taken from the greenhouse and planted in the fields.”
These greenhouse cuttings are considered G-1 (Generation 1) plants, which produce G-1 seeds and storage roots from January to mid-summer.
In year two, G-1 seeds are bedded in the fields and sprout G-2 (Generation 2) plants. The seed roots they produce will be G-2 seeds. Second-year production begins by mid-March when they bed seeds to make plants, or “slips.”
Come year three, G-2 seeds are available for planting on other growers’ farms to produce their own G-3 (Generation 3) seed, plants and sweet potatoes.
Once bedded, sprouts take about four weeks to appear. These beds are covered with plastic until slips are ready to be cut, typically late May or June. Plants cut from field beds will be planted in their 500 sweet potato acres throughout Nash County or sold to other growers. The sweet potato harvest begins in late August and continues until early November.
“Sweet potatoes are a lot of work, and they are labor intensive,” Leggett says. “But it’s very rewarding to grow sweet potatoes, since there’s a lot of enthusiasm for them in the market.”
Barnes agrees. “It’s amazing how far the sweet potato industry has come and continues to grow,” he says.
– Linda L. Leake