Sweet potatoes don’t have the value of almonds, the panache of pinot noir grapes or the personality of heirloom tomatoes. But this time of year, no family Thanksgiving feast would be complete without them.
So today we rise to write an ode to the humble sweet potato (a distant cousin of non-sweet potatoes), and to the farmers who produce them. Turns out, most of them live nearby.
California is the second largest sweet potato-producing state, after North Carolina, Ag Alert, the California Farm Bureau’s publication, noted recently. And the most recent statewide crop report ranked sweet potatoes No. 39 in total value, at about $216 million. That’s a tick above plums but a click behind pasture and garlic.
Merced County, by far, grows the most sweet potatoes in California – with roughly 80 farms producing nearly 90 percent of the state’s entire crop. They’re Merced County’s fifth most valuable crop, worth $195 million last year, and there is an entire Sweet Potato Festival dedicated to the tuber every September.
Thanks to the Merced River, the county’s sandy soil is ideal for sweet potatoes, says Scott Stoddard, a UC Ag Extension adviser who counts sweet potatoes among his specialties. Unlike, say, citrus, which is being hit by citrus greening disease, sweet potatoes haven’t been struck by pestilence, beyond nematodes (which are always are a bane).
Virtually all of the commercially grown sweet potatoes not produced in Merced County are grown in Stanislaus – where the crop was valued at $27 million in 2016.
Farmers in both counties produce a wider variety of sweet potatoes than do North Carolina growers. California sweet potatoes are, fittingly, multicolored – orange, white, red, purple. The purple is known by various names: Japanese, Oriental, Okinawan; its flavor is subtle and they’re pretty.
At D&S Farms in Atwater, Mike Duarte grows eight varieties with his partner, David Souza, and their families. They pack and ship them across the West, but a lot of what they grow lands in Europe and Canada.
Duarte is the third generation of his family to farm in California, and his daughter and her family are the fourth. “It has been pretty good livelihood,” he said.
This year’s harvest was large, so prices are low – bad for D&S but good for consumers.
Here’s what’s bad for all of us: a labor shortage. Sweet potatoes are far more labor intensive than, say, almonds. “We’ve had a hard time getting people and getting them to stay,” Duarte said.
Perhaps, at some point, Congress will summon the gumption to overhaul immigration law – benefiting both the agriculture and technology industries and providing a more humane route into the U.S. We’re not holding our breath.
Some growers call sweet potatoes the world’s healthiest vegetable, packed potassium, iron, magnesium, vitamins A, B, C and D and lots of fiber. They help your skin, your immune system and can lower stress. And they’re low-calorie, too – at least until you cover them in brown sugar or marshmallows.
At some point, some bad cook (or a corporation, according to Los Angeles Magazine) got the notion that sweet potatoes paired well with marshmallows. That is blasphemy, except maybe in a pie.
A lot of sweet potatoes will be eaten across America on Thursday. Whether baked, whipped, candied, or (heaven help us) smothered in marshmallows, we will enjoy them – as usual. Perhaps more than usual, knowing their nutritional benefit and where they come from. Right here.