Since late August, North Carolina farmers have been busy harvesting their sweet potato crop. For over 50 years, North Carolina has been the top producer of sweet potatoes in the United States. According to the USDA, North Carolina produced 1.8 billion pounds of sweet potatoes in 2021, a total value of $391.9 million. Ask one of Happy Dirt’s organic sweet potato farmers and they will tell you that they don’t foresee that number dipping any time soon. Take a walk in the Happy Dirt coolers and you will come to the same conclusion.
Why Do Sweet Potatoes Thrive in North Carolina?
North Carolina’s climate and soil are why the state remains the top producer of sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes thrive in hot, humid climates, and North Carolina has the perfect blend of heat and humidity (just ask a local). The root vegetable prefers well-drained, loose soil, specifically a sandy or clay loam soil. And, fine-loamy soil is to North Carolina like gold was to California.
Thanks to North Carolina’s sticky heat and loamy soil, organic tobacco farmers saw an opportunity to pivot during USDA’s Tobacco Buyout Program in 2004 and chose to transition from organic tobacco to organic sweet potatoes. As a matter of fact, Happy Dirt’s CEO and co-founder, Sandi Kronick, said when pitching her idea for an organic wholesale and distribution company in 2003, “What if organic sweet potatoes and kale were the next tobacco?” Her timing was impeccable!
Organic Sweet Potato Varieties that Happy Dirt Farmers are Growing.
Thousands of sweet potatoes varieties exist in the world. There are the orange-fleshed sweet potatoes that you’re accustomed to eating, then there are white sweet potatoes and purple sweet potatoes. To keep things simple, we’re sharing the four organic sweet potato varieties that our farmers grow.
The Covington sweet potato is a newer variety that was developed by North Carolina State University in the early 2000s and was named after Dr. Henry M. Covington, who is credited with helping the state become the largest grower of sweet potatoes. The Covington sweet potato has orange flesh and rose-colored, smooth skin. It’s orange flesh is moist and creamy and has a malty, sweet flavor. Happy Dirt sweet potato farmers like Randall Watkins enjoy growing organic Covington sweet potatoes, and they have quickly become our top performing root vegetable. Our organic Covington sweet potatoes are available year-round.
Mashed Sweet Potatoes
What You Need:
6 medium organic Covington sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
2 tbsp. butter
1/2 tbsp. olive oil
1 c. milk (or less)
2-3 tsp. fresh rosemary, chopped
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground ginger
2-3 cloves of garlic, depending on your taste for garlic
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. While the oven is heating, toss the sweet potato cubes with 1/2 tablespoon (or less) of olive oil to lightly cover the cubes. Put the sweet potato cubes on a large baking sheet and bake for 20-30 minutes or until soft. Pull out of the oven and let cool for 5 minutes. After the sweet potatoes have cooled slightly, put them in a blender along with the garlic, butter, milk, rosemary, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and pepper. Purée until all ingredients are blended together and the sweet potatoes are a thick, creamy consistency. Garnish with rosemary if desired.
The garnet sweet potato is one of the most common sweet potatoes sold in grocery stores. It earned the name “garnet” because of its reddish-purple skin. The flesh of the garnet sweet potato is yellow-orange, dense, and moist. Garnets have a nutty, earthy sweetness and are perfect for baking. You may see garnet sweet potatoes labeled as garnet yams or yams, but they are just sweet potatoes. Garnet sweet potatoes were mislabeled in the mid-twentieth century in order to distinguish them from the white-flesh sweet potatoes at the time. Yams are grown in Africa, the Caribbean, and South America.
Sweet Potato Biscuits
What You Need:
2 organic garnet sweet potatoes
3 c. all-purpose flour
1/3 c. shortening
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 c. buttermilk
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. nutmeg
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees and line a baking sheet with aluminum foil or parchment paper. With a fork, poke holes around both organic garnet sweet potatoes, lightly cover each with oil, and bake for 45 minutes or until soft enough to mash. Remove the sweet potatoes from the oven and let cool. Once the sweet potatoes are cool enough to touch, peel the skin, place in a mixing bowl, and mash with a fork until smooth. In a separate bowl, sift together 2 c. flour, the baking soda, salt, and spices. Work the shortening into the flour mixture until the the mixture forms into pea-sized balls. Whisk the sweet potatoes and buttermilk together. Once the sweet potatoes and buttermilk are combined, add flour to the mixture and work into a ball.
On a well-floured surface, knead the dough for 5 minutes or until the dough is soft. If needed, add flour while kneading the dough so it’s not sticky. With a rolling pin, roll the dough out to be 1/2 inches thick. Using a biscuit cutter, cut each biscuit to your desired size and place on an un-greased baking sheet. If you don’t have a biscuit cutter, you can use the top of a drinking glass. Bake for 12 minutes or until browned. Serve with butter and molasses.
Although “murasaki” is the Japanese word for purple, the Murasaki sweet potato is not a Japanese sweet potato. The variety was actually developed in Louisiana in the early 2000s. The Murasaki sweet potato has a dark purple skin and white flesh. The flesh is more dry and starchy than the flesh of Covingtons and Garnets. When cooked, Murasaki sweet potatoes are slightly sweet with flavors of chestnut, vanilla, and brown sugar. They are perfect for roasting and taste heavenly in stews.
Murasaki sweet potatoes from North Carolina are available from January through March, with smaller harvests starting in December.
Sautéed Sweet Potato
What You Need:
1 large organic murasaki sweet potato
2-3 garlic cloves, depending on your taste for garlic
1 tbsp. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
Peel and chop the murasaki sweet potato into small cubes and finely chop your garlic. Put sweet potatoes into boiling (unsalted) water and boil for about two minutes – actual cooking time depends on the size of dice. Remove the pot from the stove and drain the sweet potatoes. In a large pan, add oil and garlic and cook over medium heat until the garlic is fragrant. Add sweet potatoes, salt, and pepper, cooking over medium-high heat. Stir frequently until the sweet potatoes are golden brown. Serve immediately. We like to add fresh rosemary or parsley if available to us.
Just like there are different types of sweet potatoes with orange flesh, there are different varieties of purple sweet potatoes. Each variety varies slightly in color, but they all have dark purple skin and purple flesh. An antioxidant called anthocyanin gives purple sweet potatoes their vibrant color. It’s the same antioxidant that gives red wine, purple cabbage, purple cauliflower, purple carrots, and berries their color. Purple sweet potatoes are highly nutritious for you. They have two to three times more antioxidants than other sweet potatoes and more potassium than a banana.
As far as flavor, purple sweet potatoes are mildly sweet when cooked. The flesh is dry and the texture is more starchy, so you need to cook purple sweet potatoes slightly longer than other sweet potatoes. Once they are cooked, the purple sweet potato has a creamy texture.
Like murasaki sweet potatoes, purple sweet potatoes from North Carolina are available from January through March, with smaller harvests starting in December.
Roasted Sweet Potato Fries
What You Need:
2 organic purple sweet potatoes
1/2 stick of butter
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
1 tsp. chili powder
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. While the oven is preheating, peel your purple sweet potatoes and cut into thin sticks. In a sauce pan over low heat, melt the butter. Add seasoning to the butter and stir. In a large bowl, toss the sweet potatoes in the butter. Arrange the purple sweet potato sticks on a nonstick baking sheet (or use aluminum foil to cover the backing sheet). Bake for 15-17 minutes, shaking the pan a few times throughout until the fries sizzle and begin to turn brown. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes. Sprinkle with salt and enjoy.
If you have yet to add sweet potatoes to your weekly diet, we recommend adding them to your grocery list. They are one of nature’s healthiest vegetables, making it a powerful superfood. When buying organic sweet potatoes grown in North Carolina, you may notice some dirt left behind on the skin. Don’t let this deter you! All of the sweet potatoes are washed. But because some of North Carolina’s soil has more clay, some dirt is left behind. Just give your sweet potatoes a wash and gentle scrub before cooking if you plan on eating the skin. If you miss some, a little happy dirt won’t hurt.