It’s a chilly winter night, just after dark. Summer vegetables are gone, and the fridge is pretty empty, yet it’s time to get dinner on the table. Rather than rush to the grocery store, you check the pantry to make do with what you have.
“In July and August, it might be easy to make a very large portion of your diet local food,” says Annie Louise Perkinson from Flying Cloud Farm. “But in the winter, I think you have to work a little bit, be more conscious about it, and make choices so you can buy things to keep in storage and eat over the winter. Sweet potatoes work well for that.”
Annie Louise Perkinson and her husband Isaiah grow everything from tomatoes to cabbage at their farm in Fairview, North Carolina, but at the end of the season, it’s their sweet potatoes that keep the community full. They grew seven tons of sweet potatoes this season, and as the days grow colder, they sell them in bulk at farmers markets in the Asheville area. A 30 pound box of sweet potatoes will feed a small family for months if stored in a cool, dark place. Stockpiling sweet potatoes at the beginning of the winter makes it easy to whip up a healthy, local meal from what’s in the pantry.
“Sweet potatoes are a great food,” she says. “They are super versatile. You can eat them sweet; you can eat them savory. They’re great leftovers. We actually harvest all different sizes and the smaller ones can be really convenient for small families or you can even cook them in a toaster oven. They cook really quickly.”
For Flying Cloud Farm, storage crops like sweet potatoes are also a source of income at the end of the season and into the winter when they can’t grow other vegetables.
“Being full-time farmers and trying to focus on having year-round cash flow, we have made storage crops a priority and sweet potatoes are one that we’ve had a lot of success with. My husband, Isaiah, takes the curing process seriously and does it methodically, and then we have great reports from customers saying they’ve eaten them for up to a year after they buy them,” she says.
It’s the curing process that makes sweet potatoes edible for months after harvest. It takes time and precision to turn the starches in sweet potatoes into sugars. In late October, you’ll find the Perkinsons scurrying inside an insulated room filled with sweet potatoes. They control the temperature and humidity, keeping it at 90 degrees for about 10 days, bringing it down to 60 degrees for another 10 days, and storing at room temperature after that.
“So that is our curing process and we just do it with electric heaters and buckets of water and wet towels and a thermometer that shows the temperature and humidity and recorded every day,” she says.
All this work yields months of good eating for the public, and good profits for the farm.
“Once it’s cured it’s fairly easy to store and then it can be sold over time. So that’s kind of ideal for a farm. So many other things we have to harvest and sell right away. Having things that you could just have in inventory is really nice,” she adds.
Now is the time to buy sweet potatoes in bulk, and farmers markets are a great place to get started. Winter markets are also amazingly abundant with greens, apples, root vegetables, local meats, and cheeses to add to meals. Flying Cloud Farm brings 30 pound boxes of sweet potatoes their usual farmers markets most weeks, though you might want to call or email them in advance just to make sure. Buying in bulk is usually a better deal, so be sure to ask.
There are some differences between buying in bulk and picking up a few sweet potatoes at a time. When you see loose sweet potatoes for sale at the market, they’re usually washed first.
“So that’s an extra step that takes extra time,” she says. “The ones that we have and sell in boxes, we don’t wash because they actually do store better. They’re not washed which saves us time, and also it’s just a nice thing for people to buy and use in their kitchen over the winter.”
Many farms offer storage crops in bulk, so ask other vendors at farmers markets if they’ll sell you a bulk box of potatoes, onions, or apples. Just like having a stockpile of firewood by the shed, having these winter staples in the cupboard during the leanest months of the year helps you feel wealthy all winter.
Find winter farmers markets and farms that offer produce in bulk in ASAP’s Local Food Guide: www.appalachiangrown.org
Aired: December 4, 2017