California is a significant producer of sweet potatoes. About 90 percent of the California crop – 18,000 acres – is grown in Merced County, on farms ranging from 5 acres up to several thousand acres. In 2011, the crop’s value statewide was $125 million.
However, you probably won’t find sweet potato farmers at your local farmers market.
“Even smaller growers tend to work with a packing shed and have their crops combined with others and marketed,” said Scott Stoddard, UC Cooperative Extension advisor in Merced County.
A few years ago, when sweet potato fries began showing up at high-end restaurants and fast food chains across the country, the U.S. and the California sweet potato industries overestimated the future growth in sweet potato consumption, Stoddard said. In addition, improvements in growing practices boosted yield per acre, leaving the country with something of a sweet potato glut. Currently, acreage is inching down again as growers balance supply with demand.
Most sweet potato breeding programs are conducted in the South, such as Louisiana and North Carolina, but the characteristics sought in that part of the country are different than California. Stoddard is conducting specialized variety trials in California to select varieties with red, purple or garnet skin.
“In California, we are going for a red-skinned sweet potato,” Stoddard said. “Especially, a red-skinned variety that stores well.”
Some people incorrectly believe that sweet potatoes with moist orange flesh are yams. True yams can be found elsewhere in the world, but in the U.S., a sweet potato is a sweet potato, whether the flesh is orange, yellow or white and whether the skin is tan, dusty pink or garnet red.
Sweet potatoes are a featured California crop in Dirt Fresh News, a monthly newsletter produced by UC Cooperative Extension in Stanislaus County that introduces school children to fresh, locally grown food. The newsletter says sweet potatoes are a good source of potassium, fiber, beta-carotene and vitamins B-6, E and C.
To eat them raw, simply peel, cut into sticks and serve with low-fat ranch dressing or apple sauce for dipping. Grate fresh, uncooked sweet potatoes and add to burritos or tacos or sprinkle on salads for a sweet, nutritious crunch.
Baked sweet potatoes can be eaten for breakfast, lunch or dinner, skin and all, plain or with a small pat of butter.
“Microwaving is a great way to save energy if you are just baking 1 or 2 potatoes,” the newsletter says. “Wash your potatoes and pat dry. Prick skin with a knife in 2 to 3 places. Cook on high for 5 minutes. Turn over. Then cook for another 5 minutes, more or less.”
Following are recipes from the Sweet Potato Council of California:
Warm sweet potato and green bean salad
3 medium sweet potatoes, cooked, pared and cut into ¼-inch slices (about 2 lbs.)
½ pound fresh whole green beans
1 small red onion, halved and sliced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 cut watercress springs (optional)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper
In large skillet over medium-high heat, brown sweet potatoes and cook green beans with onion and garlic in oil until crisp-tender. Remove from heat. Stir in remaining ingredients. Service warm. If esired, top with Parmesan cheese shavings.
Sweet potato Leek Soup
1 bunch leeks, white and light green portion
2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 fresh sweet potatoes
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon thyme
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
1 pinch cayenne or ground red pepper
Slice leeks and saute in butter until soft. Thinly slice sweet potates; add to leeks; saute 3 minutes. Add water, salt and thyme. Bring to a boil; reduce heat and simmer, partially covered, 20 - 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very soft. Puree and strain. Add cream, lemon juice, white and red pepper. Adjust seasonings to taste. For garnish, julienne additional leek and sweetpotato into 3/4" strips; saute in 2 tablespoons butter until crisp-tender. Just before serving, stir into soup. Makes 4 to 6 servings.