Food and Culture in the South:
How the Sweet Potato Became Hip:
An Interview with Sue Johnson-Langdon
Eastern North Carolina is hosting both the fall of tobacco and the rise of the sweet potato. The amount of acreage devoted to each was about the same in 2010, but the two crops are on very different trajectories: Tobacco production is down to about one third of what it was even a decade ago while sweet potato production is at a record high. North Carolina is the top producer of both crops in the country, and within North Carolina, the counties surrounding and just east of I-95 are top producers of both.
Sue Johnson-Langdon is from this part of the state. She grew up in Benson, North Carolina, a farming town near the intersection of I-95 and I-40, two of the state’s most important trade routes. Johnson-Landgon grew up farming tobacco, corn, cotton, and grain. In 1970, she married a Benson sweet potato farmer who used to drive her school bus when she was in 8th and 9th grade (he was five years older), and for whom she used to work as a seasonal laborer. She farmed sweet potatoes alongside him until 1995, when she became the director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.
The NCSPC is housed in a strip mall in Benson, about seven miles south of where Johnson-Langdon grew up. It faces the rear of a Family Dollar, and a regulatory sign at the mall’s entrance warns “No Cruising.” It’s from this office space that Johnson-Langdon directs efforts at creating what she calls “a bigger sweet potato pie.” Part of the strategy means casting the sweet potato as more versatile than the marshmallow and sugar Thanksgiving side dish it’s traditionally been. The sweet potato fry has been of major importance, as has the idea that sweet potatoes can be done savory with spices like rosemary, curry, and garlic. Another part of Johnson-Langdon’s strategy is reaching out to international markets, with Germany and France as her latest targets.
When Johnson-Langdon joined the commission in 1995, there was about $30,000 in the budget for marketing. “Which is nothing,” she said. That number has climbed to about $450,000 as of the commission’s last budget, the money going to two different agencies, one about five hundred miles north up I-95 in New York City, and the other in Germany, a ten-to-fourteen day trip away for sweet potatoes leaving port from Norfolk or Savannah.
The New York agency does sweet potato PR for the U.S., writing recipe narratives in Southern voices, creating content for when Wendy’s put a baked sweet potato on its menu (a first for a fast food chain, Johnson-Langdon said). A consumer can get educated about the vegetable’s health benefits and taste possibilities on the NCSPC website. A consumer can also get a pretty good education by eating sweet potato tots just once in real life.
I met with Johnson-Langdon in her Benson office to discuss this moment of the sweet potato’s widespread appeal.
ERIN SROKA: Why is it that North Carolina’s major sweet potato producing counties are clustered around I-95?
SUE JOHNSON-LANGDON: Soil. In time past, those areas were heavy tobacco producing areas. And the cropping sequence of tobacco and sweet potato as well as the equipment and the labor involved in tobacco are complementary. Tobacco is transplanted by a transplanter and also by labor, it’s not totally automated, and so are sweet potatoes. Tobacco is planted first and when that’s over then you can begin to plant sweet potatoes. Once the sweet potatoes are planted you can work in the tobacco crop, take it to harvest, and then you can begin to harvest the sweet potatoes.
So the sequence works out and you have a longer window for your labor, so the people that work for you have continuous employment from start to finish of your crop. Tobacco and sweet potatoes are annual crops. Tobacco is planted in April and is usually harvested by mid-September. Sweet potatoes are planted in mid-May, and are harvested up to November 1.
ES: Would it be accurate to say that sweet potatoes have filled in the gaps that tobacco has left behind in the farming economy?
SJL: Yes. It was a natural fit. If you are a tobacco farmer, then you already have the farming equipment that you need. If you changed over to cotton, then you would need to buy the pickers, the module builders, the special plows with the hooded sprayers. You would need to make a real investment to be there. As it was in North Carolina with tobacco, what was used could easily be used to plant sweet potatoes, so that it didn’t require much investment on a grower’s part. And the soils that tobacco liked, sweet potatoes do well in, and the climate is good because sweet potatoes are a tropical vegetable, and they actually like heat and humidity.
ES: Did you grow up eating sweet potatoes?
SJL: Sure! Everybody in the South ate them. We always had them! They were baked in a large metal pan and then we ate from that and different things were made from candied yams—pies, puddings.
A sweet potato is a sustaining food. It creates satiety. You not only feel full, but the energy that you get is a lasting energy that carries on through the afternoon. So, it’s life sustaining, and energy sustaining.
Everybody had a potato hill, cause see, you could keep ‘em all year round.
ES: They had a potato what?
SJL: They had a potato hill. Outside. It was thermal. They dug a hole, and in it they put pine straw or wood straw as a bed, and that’s where they put sweet potatoes and apples and white potatoes sometimes. And they would make a door and brace it over so it was down, and then they covered it over with soil and with a little stack out the top for ventilation, and that’s how they wintered them. You would go in and move things, open the door, and get out however many you were going to cook.
The economy was different then, and when we grew up, it was, if you didn’t save the food that you could grow on the farm, and the meat that you slaughtered, you didn’t eat that winter. Because you literally lived at home.
Now, I’m not of the day when they ground their wheat into flour, and their corn into meal, but I do remember—because we ate a lot of pork, and it was frozen, there were the lard stands that became the grease in the things that you made, biscuits and pies and cakes and whatever you needed. You fried in it, you seasoned with it. As a child, I did not play in those lard stands. Because it was necessary.
Things have changed! But the other thing about that, especially with sweet potatoes is, we’re doing so many more things now than ever before. Yes, they were versatile then, but now we’re doing all kinds of cuisines. When I came in 1995 to the commission, it was unheard of to do sweet potatoes with fish. You just didn’t do that. They were considered to be a poor man’s food.
ES: When you were growing up, did you ever make sweet potatoes into a savory dish? Or is that a new thing?
SJL: It’s a new thing. Well, we say it’s new, but it’s not been new in other parts of the United States. In the South, it has been traditionally sweet.
ES: When did you begin to see that change?
SJL: I began to see it really in the early 2000s. It was an uphill battle at one time, here. Whenever we did a recipe contest, they all added lots of sugar, cinnamon, those type of things. However, as it became popular in the Northern states, they adapted it to their cuisine, because the Southern way of eating is frying, overcooking, and sugar. And other parts of the U.S. don’t do that, and so, as Southerners went north they took the food that they liked, and demanded that in the stores, and slowly they became not just at Thanksgiving. Or as we like to say, not just for turkeys anymore. They’re a part of everyday food now.
ES: How is it that North Carolina sweet potatoes are available year-round?
SJL: They’re kept in facilities that have controlled atmosphere. It’s kept at a constant temperature, whether it needs to be heated or it needs to be cooled. They’re kept at this optimum temperature with optimum humidity. It keeps them fresh and good tasting all year round.
ES: Are they curing while they’re in there?
SJL: The curing process is a natural process that the sweet potato goes through. It’s a conversion of starch into sugar. They’re cured, and that process is sped up, and then we bring them down to a temperature between sixty-two and sixty-five. When spring comes, if they’re not in that kind of controlled environment, then they begin sprouting. They want to keep converting, so we got to put them to sleep, until they’re ready to go out and be eaten.
ES: How have Germany and France become a destination for North Carolina sweet potatoes?
SJL: America’s market is mature; you can get what you want, anytime, anywhere. And in the UK and Western Europe we’re new, we’re trendy, we’re different. So as a commission, we try to inform and educate and give usages so they’ll read about it and try it.
ES: Are you surprised that this operation has become so international?
SJL: Yes and No. In 1995 would I ever have said I would be sitting here telling you this? No. But on the other hand, why not? In talking to an importer in the Netherlands, he was saying, what about Russia, we need to ship to Russia, and I looked at him and said, the road to Russia is littered with American companies who did not make it. And the looked at me and he said, but you cannot deny that population! They eat!
ES: Are most of the people who pick sweet potatoes in North Carolina immigrants?
SJL: Yes, they are. The majority come in through the H2A program. We want a legal, reliable, and affordable workforce, in that order. And the H2A adverse wage rate right now, it creates such disparities. There’s lots of issues in and around that.
ES: When did immigrant labor start to become more prevalent than local labor?
SJL: Gradually. It becomes almost imperceptible. As the number of farmers has dwindled—and there are those who still live on a farm—maybe even a family farm. But not everybody in that family farms. The wife is out of the home going to work. Her husband has two jobs, one on the farm, but he works to augment his income somewhere else. That’s just the way our economy and our system has gotten.
I grew up on a farm, and we worked hard. We grew tobacco, corn, sometimes cotton, or grain. There were smaller farms, and during harvest times, you worked in the neighborhood. Families worked together, and the families were larger, and that way you had the hands that you needed and you augmented that with seasonal labor.
Like, let’s just take tobacco harvest. There was only 2 of us, my sister and I, so we were small. But the family down the road had three boys and 2 girls. So, we worked together. I would work everyday, that’s how I made money for school, for some clothes or other things. I wasn’t paid on the other family’s farm, and I wasn’t paid at home. That’s how it was. But I was paid when I went to other farms in the neighborhood. Because it was a farming neighborhood. And the neighborhood doesn’t farm now. But that’s okay. We’re eating.
ES: The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission has received funding from the North Carolina Tobacco Trust Fund and Golden LEAF. Why are these relationships in place?
SJL: The Tobacco Trust Fund was formed by the tobacco settlement monies. There’s grant money for the gap that’s left from tobacco dwindling. They fund projects that provide growth in other sectors of the economy. And the costs of production are similar with tobacco and sweet potatoes as well as the returns, so here you have another viable crop that is also complementary in its planting. Also, the research and the educational projects that the NCSPC foundation has fit some of the objectives of the Tobacco Trust Fund.
ES: Does most of your funding come from grants?
SJL: Some of it does. We’ve been able to do some promotional things through specialty crop grants. One of the things we believed very strongly in was that sweet potatoes had the potential to replace tobacco acreage. And so with that premise, and in order for them to become mainstream, we were of the opinion that there had to be value-added products, not just the fresh sweet potatoes.
ES: How important has the sweet potato fry been?
SJL: It has increased awareness. Sweet potato fries have given—and I’ll just speak for America right now. They have given America and the restaurants a new item in the fry category—okay—and because of the “health halo” that sweet potatoes have, people feel good about eating them.
What it has meant—all sizes and shapes cannot be marketed fresh, they’re either crooked or round or they’re not suitable for market. It’s still an excellent potato, it just doesn’t look good—heretofore they would have been thrown away, but now with the fry, there’s a place for them.