The aroma of baked sweet potatoes signals the arrival of holiday season in kitchens across the South.
Baldwin County farmer Joel Sirmon, however, is happy to see shoppers embracing the fall favorite as a year-round source of flavor and nutrition.
“Sweet potatoes are becoming more popular,” Sirmon said. “But there’s always room for growth. Years ago, people only ate them baked or in pies. Now, the fries are popular, and they’re used in all kinds of recipes. The main thing is to get people to eat them year round.”
The construction of new sweet potato processing facilities in Louisiana and North Carolina in recent years is helping satisfy America’s growing appetite for sweet potato fries. That’s good news for Alabama farmers, who produce about 48 million pounds of the popular root each year.
Baldwin and Cullman lead the state in sweet potato production. Nationally, Alabama is tied with Arkansas for fifth place behind North Carolina, California, Mississippi and Louisiana.
“We’ve been growing sweet potatoes for about 30 years,” said Sirmon, who farms with his father, Gordon, and his brother, James. “This year, we harvested about 450 acres of sweet potatoes, which is about 100 acres less than we normally have. With all the rain earlier this year, we were lucky to get that much planted.”
Fall is peak season for sweet potato sales, according to Sirmon and Cullman County sweet potato farmer Casey Smith.
Smith, 28, farms with his father, Keith, and his brother, Cody. They have seven poultry houses and grow soybeans and cotton in addition to 100 acres of sweet potatoes.
“My daddy started the sweet potato farm here in 1974,” Smith said. “Our growing season usually starts around the end of May, and we try to have them all planted by the Fourth of July. We generally try to harvest in the middle of August or the first of September.”
Seed potatoes are used to grow slips – small plants that are transplanted into fields. As the slips grow, the plants store energy in roots, which are harvested as sweet potatoes.
A sweet potato farmer’s work doesn’t end when the crop leaves the field. While a few people bake “green” sweet potatoes, Smith said flavor improves when the potatoes are allowed to cure.
“You can cook a green potato and a cured potato side by side, and the cured potato will taste a lot better,” Smith said. “The cured potato will be softer and sweeter.”
Although Alabama-grown sweet potatoes are readily available throughout the fall at most farmers markets, Sirmon and Smith both sell to brokers, who distribute sweet potatoes to buyers throughout the South, including Walmart.
Sirmon is encouraged by the growth of frozen sweet potato products, but he admits the holiday season wouldn’t be the same without a sweet potato pie or casserole.
A large selection of sweet potato recipes are available at AlfaFarmers.org. Type sweet potato in the search field.