Sometimes it is easy for farmers to respond to a sudden increase in popularity of a given food. Kale is a good example. Anyone who already grows lettuce, broccoli or cabbage can grow kale instead the next year. Kale acreage has exploded in the last year with the popularity of raw kale salad as a quick and healthy takeout item. (As an aside: there is actually a shortage of kale seed this year for fall planting but have no fear kale fans, TFF has secured all we need).
Other crops are not so easy to expand, however. Sweet Potatoes have also been deemed a Superfood due to their high nutritional and low glycemic index values. Chefs in kitchens large and small across the country are substituting them for regular potatoes.
Sweet Potatoes are a great crop. They are vigorous, don’t take much fertilizer or water, have relatively few pests, and grow in most states of the U.S. They are a pretty crop to grow, related to morning glory and looking a whole lot like ivy. The problems start when it’s time to harvest them.
Sweet Potatoes grow deep in the ground and require extremely sandy soil in order to produce the pretty, smooth tubers you see in the store. They cannot be harvested with the same machines as regular spuds, which are covered with just a few inches of soil. The larger harvesters used on big farms cost upwards of $100,000, and are custom built. You can’t just go out and buy one.
Once sweet potatoes are harvested, they must be stored in a warm, dry environment. Compare this to regular potatoes, which can be stored in the winter in unheated barns in places like Idaho and Colorado.
There are only four major sweet potato growers in California, who also grow most of the organic crop. The crop is also grown on a fairly large scale in the Southeast. These growers are expanding their production to try to meet the increased demand, but you won’t see other farmers jumping to grow the crop based on a short term food trend.
Here at Terra Firma, we have a small amount of land that is too sandy to grow many of the crops we farm — especially in the summer — but is perfect for sweet potatoes. We were able to modify our Rube Goldberg potato harvester to dig deeper, although we still break off plenty of tubers. And it takes us roughly four times longer than digging regular spuds.
We are very happy to have sweet potatoes as part of our mix of crops. And we are just as happy to let someone else try to meet the increasing demand for this hot new “Superfood”. But we are going to plant a few more beds of kale this year.