Sweet Potatoes in North Carolina History

Written By Jane Shaw Stroup

North Carolina produces more sweet potatoes than any other state in the United States and has been a leader since 1971.[1] In 2021 its production represented 64 percent of total U.S. production.[2] The potatoes are grown primarily in central and eastern North Carolina. The largest producers are currently the counties of Sampson, Nash, Wilson, and Johnston. In 1995, after a letter-writing campaign led by elementary-school students in Wilson, North Carolina, the state legislature named the sweet potato the state vegetable.

Let’s look at the words we use for sweet potatoes. First, sweet potatoes are not part of the same family as white or “Irish” potatoes. For that reason, producers prefer that they be written as one word, sweetpotatoes. However, that language hasn’t been adopted widely, so we can still call them sweet potatoes.

Sometimes sweet potatoes are called yams. But this is a misnomer. Yams are a vegetable from Africa. African natives who came to the United States as slaves applied the name to sweet potatoes since they looked very similar. Today, some sweet potatoes are called yams, especially if they are a deep orange color, but they are almost always sweet potatoes.

Sweet potatoes originated in South or Central America but have spread all over the world. According to one source, they were not grown by northern Native Americans until after Columbus’s arrival, when explorers took the sweet potato from Mexico and the West Indies and brought them north. Sweet potatoes are known to have reached Virginia by 1648 and the Carolinas by 1723.[3] Today, China is the biggest national producer.

Sweet potatoes are nutritious. Although they may look “starchy,” they lose their starch during cooking. They have a lot of vitamin A, as indicated by their orange color, as well as Vitamin C and fiber.

We think of sweet potatoes (and yams) as holiday foods, often served with marshmallow toppings or candied (cooked in sugar—a Southern specialty).

Yet sweet potatoes have often been a staple food, especially for poorer people. Demand for sweet potatoes increased during the Great Depression (1930–1937), then fell as people became more prosperous. Today, an aggressive industry association promotes sweet potatoes. One of the newer uses is as an alternative to French fries, which are made primarily from Irish potatoes.

It appears that North Carolina farmers are increasing their sweet potato production to make up for a decline in tobacco.[4] Tobacco production fell from 900 million pounds in 1975 to 250 million pounds in 2021. North Carolina’s sweet potato production was 1.8 billion pounds in 2021.[5]