Sweet Sweet Potatoes

One of the more than 35 seasonal, organic vegetable options available at Elmwood Stock Farm right now is our sweet potatoes.

To set the record straight, yams are not sweet potatoes. We do not grow yams in this country. They are a starchy subtropical tuber—a staple in parts of Africa and South America. Some yams and sweet potatoes might accidentally have a similar shape, they both store well and provide nutrients, but that’s about it as far as similarities. Yams have a very thick, rough coconut’ish exterior. They are a different genus in the Plant Kingdom. When I see sweet potatoes being sold as yams these days, it makes me wonder what else they are not telling us.

With that out of the way, let’s explore just how great we think sweet potatoes are. From the farming perspective, they grow well and incur little pest pressure, and we have a long time to sell them after harvest, when handled properly. 

Instead of seeds, we buy ‘slips’ from an organic farm in North Carolina, where sweet potatoes reign supreme. They bury the seed tubers in sand, encouraging the sweet potatoes’ many eyes to sprout. They snap off the sprouts (which are the slips), bundle them up by the hundreds, get twice as many in a box as I could ever figure out how and send them to us via UPS. We immediately open the boxes and plant them as soon as we can.

Without a root ball on the slips, our mechanical transplanters won’t work, so each and every slip is planted by hand. We run irrigation immediately after setting, and so far, they have always taken off.

The key to organic sweet potatoes for us centers around weed control. Once the slip establishes a root system, multiple stems emerge from the crown, rapidly increasing in leaf area to feed the developing roots. While this is going on, we run cultivators down the rows, keeping weeds from competing for space and precious nutrients and moisture. At some point, the stems—which are actually vines—start running every which way, blanketing the field to capture as much sun as possible to feed the roots that are storing that solar energy in the form of tubers. These vines and leaves shade out subsequent weeds, for the most part.

Most of the work of sweet potatoes is getting them out of the ground. John welded a fin on a sub-soiling shank to run along the edge of the row. It jostles the soil around the tubers, allowing us to easily pull them up. They then get spray-washed individually before going into a retrofitted greenhouse for curing. Sure, we eat them as soon as they come out of the ground, but curing sets the skin to extend storage quality and increases sugar content, akin to letting wine breathe.

From a consumption perspective, sweet potatoes are tasty, nutrient dense and easy to prepare. Since technically not a potato, either, they have a low glycemic index. 

Revel in the various sizes and varieties. We grow several orange-flesh types, each with slightly different growth and storage characteristics. Then there is the murasaki purple-skin white-flesh variety some people prefer.

What can be easier than popping a fist-sized sweet potato into the oven and coming back an hour later to put it on a plate, slice it open, add butter, salt and pepper, or not, and scoop out the goodness? There are tens of thousands of recipes out there, I’m sure, and customers go on about theirs, and they are all good, I’m sure, but I don’t think it is necessary to go to all the effort. There is nothing better than a bowl of mashed sweet potatoes.

I know of nowhere else in the Ohio Valley than Elmwood Stock Farm to get fingerling sweet potatoes of any variety. Our harvest crew takes the extra effort to pick up all the sweet potatoes they see, no matter how small. These long, skinny tubers are not marketable in mainstream produce distribution, seen as too small to bother with in North Carolina and the Deep South growing regions, but I wonder why.

Simply coat the fingerlings with a little olive oil, sprinkle some salt, pepper and garlic powder, and roast or bake (I’m not sure the difference?) for a short while until soft. Eat them like French fries, skin and all. I like to dip mine in ketchup or barbeque sauce.

And stock up, as they keep well in your pantry. Bon appetit. —Mac Stone

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