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Sweet Potato Farmers Adapting To Pandemic

A picture of sweet potatoes.

The sweet potato is North Carolina's state vegetable and it’s a cornerstone of agriculture in the Tar Heel State.

No state produces or exports more of the vegetable than North Carolina does, making it the No. 1 producer of sweet potatoes in the nation.

Like other producers, farmers of this holiday staple say they have adapted to the pandemic.

Michelle Grainger is the executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission. She says farmers saw sales to restaurants and other big vendors decline when the coronavirus prompted limits on businesses and gatherings, but sales to households ticked up.

"Oftentimes, some of the smaller (farms) have sold directly to the grocery stores in their area. So that they're ensuring that sweet potatoes are still an option to buy in the produce section,” Grainger said. “It's just a matter of the supply chain and how they got there."

According to new figures from the USDA, last year the state's sandy soil yielded 2 billion pounds of sweet potatoes, which generated more than $320 million for producers.

Things are different this year, obviously, with COVID-19. There have been fewer sales to restaurants and large distributors, but more direct-to-consumer.

Grainger says that as the sweet potato has become more mainstream, home chefs have grown more adventurous with the ingredient. And the pandemic has more people cooking at home.

"This Thanksgiving's different than all previous Thanksgivings," she says. "Why not continue throwing caution to the wind and trying a new recipe?"

Grainger says home chefs could try to spiralize their sweet potatoes and use them like pasta instead.

Sales have also increased as farms partnered with more direct-to-consumer meal kit services.

Jason deBruyn is the WUNC health reporter, a beat he took in 2020. He has been in the WUNC newsroom since 2016.
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