Local research team aims to take NC sweet potato revival global

Sweet potatoes are being gleaned in a new healthy eating venture thanks to Glean foods. Photo courtesy of Glean.

Sweet potatoes have become big business in North Carolina.

Much of the staple crop’s recent success is due to its advocates at NC State University – scientists and researchers who had a vision that has revived an industry and holds incredible promise for our economy at home and for some developing nations. According to the latest news from the NC State Horticulture Science program specifically focused on potato breeding and genetics, agriculture writer Bill Krueger notes that the work of Dr. Craig Yencho could transform the way sweet potatoes are eaten in several African countries, improving the health of young children and their mothers and creating new economic opportunities.

2005 marked the beginning of a journey that would take these researchers from fields in eastern North Carolina halfway around the world to a small village in Uganda, says Krueger. As the sweet potato business was flagging in the state due to a predominantly used varietal not suited to our soil and climate, breeders set out to create a seed that could withstand the sandy soil, hot climate, while looking appetizing on store shelves and retaining nutritional value.

What they eventually developed was a sweet potato variety they called Covington, which had begun as a botanical seed in 1997 and progressed through years of field trials. Within a few years, Covington was the top choice for sweet potato farmers in the state. By 2017, the amount of sweet potatoes grown in North Carolina had nearly doubled and North Carolina had reclaimed its place as the leading producer of sweet potatoes in the United States. Krueger quotes Jim Jones, who grows about 1,500 acres of sweet potatoes in Nash County, and says Covington was “the best thing that’s happened in the sweet potato business.”

Dr. Yencho, a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor and leader of NC State’s sweet potato and potato breeding and genetics program, was one of the masterminds behind Covington from the very beginning, and has been able to leverage some national scientific and industry-specific resources to continue his work. He currently leads an effort, fueled by a $12 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, to bring molecular science to sweet potato breeding programs in Uganda and a handful of other sub-Saharan countries in Africa. As explained to Krueger, Yencho’s ultimate goal is twofold — ”to use sweet potatoes to increase economic opportunities and to get sweet potatoes’ nutrients into the bellies of children and pregnant women who suffer from such serious vitamin A deficiencies that they are in danger of going blind.”

 

However, as Krueger notes, while sweet potatoes are already a staple of the diet for many families in Uganda, most of the sweet potatoes grown in Africa would be unfamiliar to American consumers, used to the familiar bright orange flesh. Instead, they have white, cream-colored or yellow flesh, are not as sweet or soft, and lack many of the nutrients found in U.S. sweet potatoes.

Changing consumer preferences is part of Yencho’s challenge, and while early promotional efforts touting the health benefits of orange foods such as sweet potatoes and mangoes have created some converts, the primary struggle is in breeding varieties hardy enough to withstand the harsh environmental challenges Uganda poses with insects and drought.

This North Carolina team of scientists and researchers have begun to build an infrastructure in Uganda that is yielding results through systems and training programs that are designed to increase output and continued research. Krueger notes that encouraging signs can be found throughout Africa, and points to programs in Rwanda, Malawi and Mozambique that have all seen an increase in the consumption of orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, even in the midst of poverty and harsh conditions. This is due in large part to an evident “entrepreneurial spirit,” says Yencho.

As for the future commodification of the Covington sweet potato, Krueger explains that Yencho and his partner hold the patent on the specific breed, and NC State licenses it to be grown in North Carolina, around the country, and even a few other nations, which generates revenue that is used to cover the cost of the university’s breeding program.

And here in North Carolina, the sweet potato business has never been better.

Krueger highlights Scott Farms in Lucama, N.C., the fifth generation now farms 12,000 acres in five counties, which house facilities that pack 40,000–50,000 pounds of sweet potatoes an hour to ship to U.S. and foreign markets.  Of course, one of the most mentionable results of this 20-year effort is Yamco, in Snow Hill, N.C., which distills Covington Gourmet Vodka, a winner of multiple international awards.

As the sweet potato market continues to grow in the U.S. and abroad, it seems that North Carolina is poised to yet again to capitalize on the unique blend of old and new, wisdom and innovation that continues to define our best efforts.