The Holiday Season's Favorite Veggie- The Sweet Potato
by Travis Kress, The Alabama Sweet Potato Growers Association
December 1, 2020
We now find ourselves in the midst of the hustle and bustle of the holiday season. Thanksgiving has now passed and Christmas is right around the corner. When we think of these two holidays, the meal often shared with family is what comes to mind.
The turkey, ham, dressings and casseroles are the stars of these delicious holiday spreads, but there is one Sweet Grown Alabama product that appears in several different courses especially during the Thanksgiving and Christmas meals. This one vegetable is a must have for a traditional Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner to be complete.
The vegetable I am speaking of is the sweet potato, more so the Alabama sweet potato. Just mentioning it now does your mouth start to water thinking about the sweet potato casseroles, sweet potato pie and candied sweet potatoes (not yams)? Yams have a starchy flesh and a bark type skin compared to the sweet potato with a reddish-brown skin and a moist sweet flesh.
What makes the sweet potato so unique during these holidays is how in can appear in so many different courses. The sweet potato can be used in breads, casseroles, pies- the list goes on with so many different delicious recipes to showcase an Alabama sweet potato. So many crave fresh local produce, and at this time of the year that can be hard to find but the sweet potato fits the bill perfectly. However, once these two holidays end the sweet potato seems to be forgotten. Sweet potato consumption drops off and seems to be forgotten about until the next Thanksgiving and Christmas.
I want to share with you about how sweet potatoes are produced in Alabama and the benefits of eating more sweet potatoes. So grab yourself a cup of hot chocolate, a nice blanket and maybe have a nice fire if you can but it may be like it is now at the writing of the article here in middle November, if that is the case put on your shorts cut the air conditioning on and get your favorite iced drink and I will offer you a look in the production of the Sweet Grown Alabama sweet potato.
Sweet potatoes are one of the healthiest vegetables that you can eat. They are considered a super food. The average baking size potato contains only about 100 calories. They are jammed packed with vitamins- vitamin A being one. A sweet potato has over four times the amount of vitamin A that we need each day. Vitamin A boosts our immune system and with Covid-19 we need our immune systems as strong as possible to fight off any sickness. Sweet potatoes have the antioxidant beta carotene. Antioxidants can be beneficial in lowering your risk for cancer. Sweet potatoes are also a great source for your daily recommended fiber, along with many other health benefits, such as aiding in weight loss and lowering bad cholesterol. Sweet potatoes are good to eat but they are also good for you.
Typically, in February for South Alabama and March for North Alabama, sweet potatoes are laid out in either a dirt or sawdust bed. The whole sweet potato is placed and covered up. The eyes of the sweet potato then begin to sprout. You have probably seen this happen to sweet potatoes that you have kept at your home too long and seen the sprouts. The sprouts turn into the slips that are used to be transplanted in the field. The slips are most often cut about an inch off the ground, the inch left will then produce another slip that can be cut again in a few weeks and transplanted. The continues until enough slips are produced for the farmer to plant his desired acreage. What is unique about the sweet potato transplants (or slips as we refer to them) is that they have no roots on the plant when it is planted into the field. If the slip has a node on it, roots will begin to emerge from the node and the plant will begin to grow.
Sweet Potatoes grown as a commercial crop, like most fruit or vegetable crops, require a lot of labor most often by hand. When the slips are cut and moved to the field, they are planted using a transplanter. The transplanter requires someone to manually place each slip in a pocket for it to be planted.
An acre of sweet potatoes will have about 12,000 slips that need to be transplanted, that comes out to 600,000 slips placed by hand on a fifty-acre farm. Sweet potato farms in Alabama range from a few hundred feet long rows to over three hundred-acre farms of sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are planted on a raised row. The potatoes are produced underground, and the raised row makes harvesting easier.
Once the sweet potatoes have been transplanted it usually takes from 90 day to 120 days until time to harvest. In the time from planting to harvest, farmers must be making plans for pest control measures. Weed control is managed by a cultivator plow in the early growth stages of the plant. Sweet potatoes are a vining plant so as they grow the vines begin to entirely cover the ground. A cultivator plow can no longer be used for weeding because of the damage it could cause to the vines. Then hand pulling of weeds (or a hoe) is used to keep the weeds that are competition to sweet potatoes plants under control.
Harvest time usually begins around August and can sometimes be a race (especially in North Alabama) to get all the potatoes harvested before the ground freezes and the crop that is still in the ground is a lost. Before any harvesting can take place, the vines of the potatoes must be cut off. Known as de-vining, this is often done mechanically by a machine.
Two forms of harvesting are typically done in Alabama. The first being a harvester. It is pulled behind a tractor. It digs the sweet potatoes and places them on a long chain conveyor where people are standing on both sides and grab the potatoes off the conveyor and place them in large bins to be carried in from the field into the storage houses. The other method is a potato digger which is used to lift the potatoes up out the ground, shake the dirt off and places them on top of the ground. The people that are harvesting then place them in buckets that are picked up and poured into larger bins that are carried in and placed in the storage house.
Sweet potatoes when harvested are green. The potatoes need to go through a curing process. The curing process allows the sweet potato to heal any damage from harvest. The skin becomes tougher and the potato is less prone to skinning. Curing also starts the sugar production in the potato and gives the potato a sweeter taste. A cured sweet potato will store for months if stored in cool dark spot like the corner of the garage. The curing process takes about two weeks. The best environment to cure potatoes is at 85 degrees Fahrenheit and 85 percent humidity. The curing is usually done in storage houses or “potato houses.” Many older farms that are still around have buildings that were built as potato houses designed to cure and store potatoes.
Once cured the potatoes are ready for packaging and shipping. The potatoes go through a washer where the dirt is washed off, and then they roll across a series of conveyors that sort out the potatoes by size. On the final conveyor the potatoes are inspected and hand-graded before going into the box that is placed on a pallet and ready to ship. Typically, the potatoes are packed in forty-pound boxes. Most sweet potatoes in Alabama are shipped to grocery store warehouses. Most of the sweet potato farms in Alabama will also sell single boxes to individuals. You can find a list of sweet potato farms in Alabama at the following web address: http://alsweetpotatoes.org/.
The sweet potatoes when graded are sorted out by sizes. Number 1’s are larger than 1.5 inches in diameter up to 2.25 inches, and no more the 7 inches long. They are uniform in shape and size and free of damage. The number 2’s are not smaller than 1.5-inch diameter and do not weigh more than 36 ounces. Number 2’s are most often thought of as the perfect baking size potato.
For many years the Beaugard variety of the sweet potato was the industry standard, but in years recently new varieties have come to the market. The varieties most grown in Alabama are Orleans and Covington.
So now that I have give the run down on Alabama sweet potato production, when it comes time to start preparing your favorite sweet potato dish for Christmas make sure to use Sweet Grown Alabama sweet potatoes. When you go out shopping check the label at the grocery store. If it is not an Alabama Sweet Potato, ask that they carry it for next time and then head to your local sweet potato farm and pick up a box to enjoy. Remember the ones that you do not use in your Christmas cooking, you can store and enjoy Sweet Grown Alabama Sweet Potatoes all year long. We at the Alabama Sweet Potato Association thank you for your support and wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.