Most people recognize the dogwood as the North Carolina state tree and the cardinal as the state bird. But what about the state vegetable? It’s the sweet potato – one of the hottest agricultural crops.
With a sweet, mild flavor and an enviable health profile, the sweet potato is a significant industry in North Carolina. Since 1971, North Carolina has ranked No. 1 in U.S. sweet potato production. In fact, more than half of the nation’s supply of sweet potatoes can be traced back to North Carolina.
From Farm To Table
Chef Vivian Howard, owner of the renowned restaurant Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, knows more than most about sweet potatoes. Her award-winning restaurant celebrates the culture of eastern North Carolina, and Howard stars in the documentary, A Chef’s Life, which airs on PBS and focuses on the challenges of restaurant life with emphasis on the food that inspires Howard daily.
“I’m like a sweet potato disciple,” Howard says. “When you start thinking of fall, sweet potatoes are one of the top three things that come to mind. You think of warm spices and happy comfort food. Sweet potatoes even look like fall.”
Chef Howard’s goal is to offer customers the best dishes possible, and that means using the freshest, local produce and meat whenever possible. She works with a network of 20 to 25 local farmers, but it’s a cyclical business because many farmers specialize in seasonal crops or products.
“It’s almost a full-time job to work with that many farmers,” Howard says. “It takes a lot of planning.”
Sweet potatoes are a highlight of many of Howard’s fall offerings. She says the vegetable that used to be associated with our grandmothers has become the popular potato of choice in culinary circles and with customers – and North Carolina- grown sweet potatoes deliver taste and quality.
Not so long ago, the sweet potato wasn’t the star of the show. In the 1970s and ’80s, consumers weren’t fully aware that the sweet potato was healthier and more flavorful than other potato varieties.
Howard thinks the increase in demand for sweet potatoes is due in part to an increased interest in all vegetables.
“I think people also have realized that sweet potatoes are incredibly nutritious,” she says.
Today, products created from sweet potatoes include vodka, juice, pet food and even craft beer.
Fullsteam Brewery in Durham offers a sweet potato lager called Carver, a smooth lager that “celebrates the subtle flavor of North Carolina’s most prized crop.” Fullsteam owner Sean Wilson touts its “plow to pint” company mission as a way to celebrate the efforts of North Carolina farmers. Each batch of Carver is brewed with 200 pounds of locally grown sweet potatoes, but no pie spices go into this brew.
Carver is available at Fullsteam Brewery and other markets, including the Durham Farmers Market. While interest in the beer increases in the fall, Carver is not a seasonal beer, but one of the brewery’s bestsellers year round.
Sweet Potato Dynasty
Kelly McIver, executive director of the NC Sweet Potato Commission, says the sweet potato business is growing exponentially.
“Fifteen years ago, North Carolina produced 5.6 million hundredweight (cwt) of sweet potatoes,” she says. “By 2014, production had expanded to 15.8 million cwt. The 185-percent increase in North Carolina’s production has buoyed the U.S. sweet potato industry.”
Over 400 North Carolina sweet potato farmers produce 53 percent of the nation’s supply of sweet potatoes. Climate and healthy soil are key reasons for North Carolina’s dominance in the sweet potato market.
“Sweet potatoes are grown across the country, but they are best suited for cultivation in southern states, which have warmer climates and longer frost- free growing seasons relative to other regions of the U.S.,” McIver says. “In particular, North Carolina’s climate and soil conditions are ideal for sweet potato production.”
Not all sweet potatoes are the same. There are hundreds of types of sweet potatoes, however, the orange-fleshed, sweet varieties are the most typical ones grown
in the state.
McIver says, “The North Carolina sweet potato industry is on the cutting edge of every aspect, whether it’s marketing, research or education. Our purpose is clear-cut, and our goals include feeding the world. The diversity of this product appeals to all end users, whether it is through good taste or healthy eating lifestyles. You will find us year round in your grocers, roadside farm stands, and in distillers and breweries.”