For many families, Thanksgiving isn’t Thanksgiving without a sweet potato dish. Here in Maine this historically meant relying on imports from the south. But not anymore.
Now Mainers can round out their Thanksgiving spreads with locally grown sweet potatoes. That’s because an increasing number of Maine farmers cultivate this tropical root.
“There are quite a few farmers in Maine growing them now,” said Eric Sideman, organic crop specialist with the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. “I would say in the past five years it’s caught on, and in the last two to three years it’s really caught on. There were no sweet potatoes in the catalogs 10 years ago, but now you can buy them from the local seed companies. Farmers buy from the larger seed companies down south.”
Sideman started growing sweet potatoes in his garden 20 years ago, and his wife, Becky Sideman, who is the vegetable and small fruits specialist at the University of New Hampshire, conducted field trials on which varieties grow best in the Northeast.
MOFGA encourages Maine farmers to try this crop by producing fact sheets and holding sweet potato information sessions at its Farmer to Farmer conferences.
It was at one of these sessions where Jan Goranson, who runs Goranson Farm in Dresden with her husband, Rob Johanson, learned the finer points of growing sweet potatoes.
“We’ve been growing them for three years now,” Goranson said. “We’ve essentially doubled our production each year. Our demand has been high, and our quality has been high.”
This year the farm grew close to four tons of sweet potatoes. Customers can’t get enough.
“When people saw we had sweet potatoes they were excited to shift their buying from the grocery store to the farm,” Goranson said. “It’s a vegetable that people like, and our customers like buying as much local food as possible.”
Customers can find Goranson Farm’s sweet potatoes at the winter farmers markets in Portland, Brunswick, Bath and Damariscotta. And through the month of November, the farm’s store is open each Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
“People seem to know what to do with sweet potatoes,” Goranson said. “It doesn’t require a lot of instruction.”
The familiarity and popularity of the sweet potato stands in contrast to more exotic vegetables grown by Maine farmers, such as kohlrabi or daikon radishes, which require a stronger sales pitch and more cooking tips from the farmer. But when it comes to sweet potatoes, it seems most everyone has tried them and likes them.
“You can cook them the same as you’ve been cooking them for years,” Goranson said. “You can roast them. You can steam them. You can put them in soups. You can puree them. Sweet potato fries are certainly another popular way, as slices or wedges.”
For her family’s Thanksgiving, Goranson likes to include sweet potatoes with a roasted melange of other farm vegetables, including parsnips, carrots, white potatoes, butternut squash and garlic.
With sweet potato slips available from a number of local seed companies, including Johnny’s Selected Seeds and The Maine Potato Lady, gardeners can grow them as well.
“They’re not tricky to grow,” Sideman said. “Deer love to eat them and you do have to deal with weeds, but they don’t take a lot of fertility. They’re easy to grow organically because there aren’t many diseases or insects that attack them. The biggest risk is voles.”
Whether you grow your own sweet potatoes or buy them from your local farmer, Sideman said there are a couple things to keep in mind.
First is the fact that sweet potatoes need to be cured in a warm, dry place for three weeks after harvest.
Most farmers in Maine use a heated greenhouse and keep the temperature above 60 degrees and closer to 80 degrees, if possible.
The curing brings out the root vegetable’s sweetness.
“If you buy them at the farmers market, you should ask whether they’ve been cured first,” Sideman said.
But, Sideman adds, that’s really a question for earlier in the season. All the sweet potatoes grown in Maine this year were harvested long before the cool autumn nights arrived.
Sweet potatoes react badly to cold temperatures, and Maine farmers know to shield them from cool weather and protect them from exposure to temperatures below the low 50s.
For cooks this means sweet potatoes should be stored on the counter or in a cupboard, but never in the refrigerator.
“They suffer chilling injury if they get cooler than 50 degrees,” said Sideman, who stores his sweet potatoes in a heated mudroom. “At 60 degrees you can keep them for at least a year. We’re eating sweet potatoes that are two years old and they’re fine.”
To Sideman it’s obvious why sweet potatoes have proved a profitable crop for Maine’s small farmers.
“It not the same kind of product you find in the supermarket,” Sideman said. “It’s a locally produced garden vegetable.”
Avery Yale Kamila is a freelancer who lives in Portland, where she’s enjoys Maine-grown sweet potatoes and writes about health food. She can be reached at: