Stanley & the Sweet Potato
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.