Sweet potatoes don’t have the value of almonds, nor 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.
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 value, at about $216 million. That’s a tick above plums but a click behind pasture and garlic.
But here in Merced County, sweet potatoes are far more important. Most of California’s 80 or 90 growers are based in Merced County, where 90 percent of the state’s sweet potatoes are grown; they’re the fifth most valuable crop raised in the county valued at $195 million.
Farmers here produce a wider variety of sweet potatoes than do Tar Heel State farmers. California sweet potatoes are, fittingly, multi-colored – orange, white, red, purple. The purple is known by various names: Japanese, Oriental, Okinawan, and its flavor is subtle and they’re pretty.
Merced County has the ideal soil for sweet potatoes; sandy, thanks to the Merced River, Scott Stoddard tells us. He is a UC Ag Extension adviser who counts sweet potatoes as being 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, though no more so this season than in others, Stoddard said.
At D&S Farms in Atwater, Mike Duarte grows eight varieties with his partner, David Souza, and their families, and packs and ships them across the West. Much of California’s crop lands in Europe and Canada. Duarte represents 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. That would benefit both this state’s agriculture and technology industries, and would be the humane thing to do. We’re not holding our breath.
Full Belly Farms in Capay Valley, which delivers produce including sweet potatoes to city folk, informs us that “the sweet potato ranks higher than almost any other vegetable in nutritional content.” They’re high in calcium, vitamins, fiber and all the other stuff that makes for a healthy diet.
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, though in the right hands, they can be transformed into great pies.
At Sacramento’s Magpie Cafe, Ed Roehr suggests roasting sweet potatoes for 35 minutes at 350 degrees, cutting them open, mixing in butter and brown sugar, thyme and star anise, and baking them a little longer. When they’re in season, starting in August, he uses the leaves for salads; they can be sauteed, too.
We’ll look for the greens late next summer. This week, whether we bake them, whip them, or candy them, or (heaven help us) put marshmallows on them, we will thank the growers and workers who deliver them to our tables. Then we’ll dig in.