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  • Norfolk Farms

Sweet Potatoes: The Deep South, Is Now North

‘Not so very long ago’, the baby and infant population of Canada was consuming more sweet potatoes than their adult counterparts... 4 ounces at a time -the size of a Gerber baby-food jar Image

Sweet potato consumption for most of the 20th century -among adults, was almost unknown in Canada excepting the occasional serving at Christmas and Easter. However, that all changed with an increased perception of its nutritional benefits -being healthier than the Irish potato. Between 2007 and 2017, sweet potato consumption in Canada has essentially doubled, from 0.7 kg/person to about 1.5 kg/person, annually.

Yellow-fleshed vegetables such as squash, pumpkins and carrots -including sweet potatoes, are high in beta-carotene, the yellow pigment (known as carotenoid) that gives these vegetables their colour. Beta-carotene is a source of vitamin A, and an important anti-oxidant having many proven health benefits. Cookbooks are now choc-a-bloc full of sweet potato recipes. That, with the acceptance of sweet potato French fries and chips, has put this vegetable on the every-day-menu, for many.

While North Carolina is the main producer of sweet potatoes accounting for half of all U.S. production, it was only about 25-30 years ago that the majority of sweet potatoes entering Canada travelled 2000 miles (3,225 km) from Louisiana to Toronto. And, at the time, the per capita consumption of sweet potatoes in Canada equated to about 2,000 acres (800 ha) of production.

Now, the Norfolk and surrounding region has supplanted this production, and the travel time to Toronto is a mere 2 hours, in comparison! However, with increased per capita consumption, there are still considerable sweet potato imports into Canada. Sweet potatoes are a heavy and bulky commodity to transport, and therefore any production in close proximity to local markets will make a huge difference in profitability. Enter, Norfolk County Sand Plains and surrounding region.

Sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) belongs to the morning glory family, and the plant is a perennial in its native countries of origin (central and south America). This crop is established by planting ‘slips’ (root sprouts) much in the fashion of tobacco and other transplants. However, the sweet potato ‘transplant’ is unique in that it often has little to no root yet, it can quickly establish itself in hot dry sandy soils, almost defying the imagination.

While it is a subtropical crop, the extended frost-free growing seasons in recent years, allow it to grow to maturity with very acceptable yields. Another benefit of growing sweet potatoes in this part of the world, is that our winters do not allow the survival of their natural enemies -insects and diseases, common to the southern part of the United States (the main growing region of sweet potatoes -having similar soils to those found in the Norfolk area), therefore -and thus far, this crop is free from the need for pest control ...and perhaps, might be marketed as ‘pesticide free’.

Colloquially, the sweet potato is often referred to as yams -although the yam is a completely different plant and crop. In the days of African slaves in the U.S., this crop looked very similar to the actual yams grown in Africa -and referred to as yamuchi, in their native tongue. Now, the terms are often used, interchangeably.

Locally, sweet potato yields range between 10,000-15,000 lbs/ac. (11,200-16,800 kg/ha). Canada imports approximately 75,000 MT of sweet potatoes (see table below) -which, would equate to about 10,000-15,000 ac (4,000-6,000 ha) of production ...depending upon yields. However, these import numbers would include processed sweet potatoes, and therefore these import numbers would not necessarily equate to acres of fresh-market production.

Like all crops, there is an ‘art and science’ to the successful production of sweet potatoes -not to mention weather-related risks. However, local growers are doing an admirable job in the production and handling of sweet potatoes -and, hopefully, enjoying ‘the sweet smell of success’. 

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