Stan­ley & the Sweet Potato

EatingWell - - FEATURES - By Ch­eryl Slocum

With care­ful cul­ti­va­tion and hand har­vest­ing, Stan­ley Hughes and his wife, Linda, have el­e­vated this hum­ble sta­ple of the hol­i­day ta­ble.

Stan­ley Hughes first tended sweet pota­toes in his fam­ily’s veg­etable gar­den as a young boy. To­day he grows over 80,000 pounds of them a year at Pine Knot Farms, a 125-acre tract that his grand­fa­ther pur­chased in 1912. Hughes’s rep­u­ta­tion for grow­ing sweet pota­toes is some­thing of a lo­cal leg­end. Dur­ing the 14 years that he and his wife, Linda Leach-hughes, sold at the Durham Farmers’ Market, cus­tomers crowded around and clam­ored for their or­ganic sweet pota­toes: Beau­re­gards and Cov­ing­tons, val­ued for their moist flesh and sweet fla­vor that deep­ens with bak­ing; what he and Linda call “Pur­ple-pur­ple” sweet pota­toes for their vi­brant color; and white-fleshed O’hen­rys and Boni­tas. When Hughes took over Pine Knot from his fa­ther, he held down other jobs off the farm. But in 1996 he com­mit­ted to full-time farm­ing. Back then, the farm’s main crop was to­bacco, but with the in­dus­try in de­cline, Hughes saw an op­por­tu­nity to switch over to or­ganic agri­cul­ture and fo­cus on sweet pota­toes. “For a small farmer, I think do­ing or­ganic has al­lowed me to stay on the farm,” Hughes says. “You’re lim­ited on your pro­duc­tion, but you can get more dol­lar value for what you grow.” Hughes ap­pre­ci­ates that af­ter har­vest­ing to­bacco, the sweet pota­toes he ro­tates in re­plen­ish the soil with nu­tri­ents the to­bacco sucks up. What’s more, the vi­ta­min-rich su­per­food has

gained a strong­hold in the di­ets of Amer­i­can con­sumers: con­sump­tion of sweet pota­toes has al­most dou­bled over the last two decades, so de­mand for Hughes’s crop has been high. As unas­sum­ing as they may look, the sweet potato is a high-main­te­nance crop. In early spring, Hughes prop­a­gates slips (sprouts that grow from pota­toes), later trans­plant­ing them by hand into the fields. To con­trol weeds and grasses that in­vite preda­tory in­sects, the fields are hoed by hand. Har­vest be­gins about 90 to 120 days af­ter trans­plant­ing—a man­ual process, since sweet pota­toes have del­i­cate skins that scar eas­ily. “It’s like han­dling a baby,” says Hughes. One of the farm’s for­mer to­bacco barns serves as the warm en­vi­ron­ment where the pota­toes cure for seven to 12 days caus­ing the starches to turn to sug­ars. On top of all this, com­ply­ing with or­ganic stan­dards re­quires metic­u­lous, daily record-keep­ing—a job Leach-hughes has mas­tered—to ver­ify that the right ma­te­ri­als, seeds, plants and meth­ods are used. Re­tired from the Durham Market this year, Hughes is now putting his sweet pota­toes into the hands of cus­tomers all along the East­ern Se­aboard through East­ern Carolina Or­gan­ics (ECO) a farmers’ co­op­er­a­tive where he is a found­ing owner. Sandi Kron­ick, the CEO, con­sid­ers Hughes an in­valu­able re­source for upand-com­ing or­ganic farmers. “Stan­ley is unique,” says Kron­ick for “his back­ground nav­i­gat­ing chal­lenges as a black farmer, his en­gage­ment in the or­ganic com­mu­nity, and his abil­ity to strad­dle both the to­bacco and farmers’ veg­etable mar­kets.”

The har­vest is a man­ual process since Sweet pota­toes have del­i­cate skins. “it’s like han­dling a baby,” says Hughes.

Hughes has been lauded for his sus­tain­able farm­ing prac­tices. In 2004, he was named Small Farmer of the Year by the North Carolina A&T State Univer­sity and both he and Leach-hughes were sim­i­larly hon­ored in 2013 by the Carolina Farm Ste­ward­ship As­so­ci­a­tion. To Hughes, though, sus­tain­able farm­ing seems fa­mil­iar and rooted in tried and true tech­niques he learned long ago. “It means do­ing more things by hand,” he says. “Do­ing it back the way it was.” CH­ERYL SLOCUM is a James Beard Award-win­ning writer and recipe de­vel­oper based in Birm­ing­ham, Alabama.

lo­ca­tion pho­tog­ra­phy by food pho­tog­ra­phy by jimmy Wil­liams Johnny autry

Each fall, Stan­ley Hughes (above left) hires sea­sonal work­ers to as­sist with the sweet potato har­vest. Hughes in­sists they wear gloves not only to pro­tect their hands, but also to pre­vent dents or scars on the frag­ile crop.

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