The sweet potato industry in NC

sweet potato-sweet potatoes-nc
Photo by WNC Farmers Market

When it comes to agriculture, the Tar Heel state gets a lot of attention for its tobacco, soybeans, hemp + apple crops, but DYK we’re also the top producers of sweet potatoes in the nation? And we’ve held that distinction since 1971. In fact, only two states — California and Mississippi — come close to producing as many sweet potatoes as we do. Sweet potatoes are also our official state vegetable. This is a fact which I, WNC-born + bred, never even knew.

Demand for sweet potatoes throughout the holiday season is constant, as they comprise some hugely popular seasonal dishes, like pies, casseroles + salads. In fact, some chefs predict that the sweet spuds’ popularity will continue to grow in 2021, which isn’t surprising when you consider that they’re one of the top 10 healthiest foods you can eat. Today, we’re breaking down the sweet potato industry by the numbers here in NC

  • NC primarily produces the Covington variety, a.k.a. the popular + typical variety found at most grocery stores. We also widely grow the white and Japanese varieties.
  • In 2019, sweet potatoes were the state’s fourth most valuable crop, bringing in $324 million dollars worth of revenue. 
  • In 2019, NC grew approximately two billion pounds of sweet potatoes. This is especially noteworthy because production was down in 2018 due to hurricane damage. 
  • The overwhelming majority of sweet potatoes are grown in the Eastern portion of the state in Sampson, Johnston, and Lenoir counties
  • The share of sweet potatoes that NC produced last year? 61%, which is 21 percentage points greater than the previous year’s harvest.

Now if all these stats + facts haven’t made you hungry, a delectable sweet potato recipe — exclusively shared with us by Smoky Park Supper Club’s Executive Chef Michelle Bailey — surely will. 🍠

Grilled NC Sweet Potatoes with Pomegranate & Embered Walnut Relish

By Chef Michelle Bailey, Smoky Park Supper Club

Yield: 4 servings

Pomegranate Glaze 

Can be made up to one week in advance 

  • 16 oz. pomegranate juice
  • 4 oz. freshly squeezed orange juice
  • 2 tsp. local honey
  • Pinch salt & pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small pot, whisk to combine, and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Allow liquid to reduce to one cup in volume. Remove from heat and store in refrigerator until ready to use.

Pomegranate & Embered Walnut Relish

Can be made up to 3 days in advance 

  • 1 whole pomegranate
  • ¾ cup walnut pieces
  • 1 lemon, zest only
  • 1 orange, zest and juice
  • 3 Tbsp. parsley, minced
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • Salt and pepper as needed

Clean one whole pomegranate, being sure to remove and discard all of the white membrane, and set the seeds aside. Place walnut pieces in a basket strainer and place over a very hot grill, shaking constantly until nuts are slightly charred on the outside. Toast charred walnuts 10-15 minutes in a 325° oven until toasted evenly. While nuts are cooling, mince parsley, zest the lemon and orange, and juice the orange. Roughly chop the walnuts and add them to a bowl with the pomegranate seeds and parsley mix. Adjust seasoning as needed with salt and pepper.

Grilled Sweet Potatoes

Can be poached up to 5 days in advance and grilled day of serving.

  • 2 pounds whole NC sweet potatoes
  • 32 oz. vegetable broth
  • 2 oz. unsalted butter
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 1 orange, quartered
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • 2 tsp. sorghum molasses
  • ½” piece of ginger, sliced into thin rounds

Combine all ingredients except for the sweet potatoes in a high sided sauté pan and bring to a gentle simmer. Peel the sweet potatoes and slice into 1-inch rounds. Add sweet potatoes to the simmering liquid and cover. Cook on low/medium heat until potatoes are soft enough to pierce with a fork but still firm in the center (approx. 12-15 minutes). Using a slotted spoon or spatula, transfer sweet potato rounds to a baking sheet and put in the refrigerator to chill immediately. Allow potatoes to cool for at least one hour. 

Heat a gas or charcoal grill to medium high heat. Season potato slices with salt and pepper on both sides. Spray the grill grates with olive or vegetable oil. Cook sweet potatoes on both sides until they have nice grill marks and are hot all the way through. 

Brush the grilled sweet potatoes with the pomegranate glaze and arrange nicely on a platter. Just before serving, sprinkle relish on top of the sweet potatoes and place any extra relish in a dish on the side.