Califonia Bountiful

Digging in

Sept./Oct. 2010 California Country magazine

Sweet potatoes go from holiday side dish to year-round staple.

California farmers have a reputation for producing some of the best-tasting, best-looking sweet potatoes in the nation—including these red-skinned Dianes grown by father-son team Dave Souza Jr. and David Souza III.

When he was a youngster, David Souza III didn't care much for sweet potatoes. But he has since developed quite a taste for one of nature's healthiest vegetables.

"I love them now. I just got married in February and my wife Maria and I have a little one on the way. We just found out it's a boy and I'm sure that he will like sweet potatoes too," said Souza, who with father Dave Jr. is part owner of D&S Farms in Atwater. "The sweet potato is almost the perfect vegetable, actually."

Sweet potatoes have grabbed headlines lately for their nutritional superiority, being called one of the best vegetables you can eat. One medium sweet potato, baked with the skin, has about four times the recommended daily allowance of vitamin A and almost half the recommendation for vitamin C. They're also high in potassium and fiber. In addition, the taste and texture of the tuber is right at home in everything from casseroles to stir-fries, making it delicious baked, grilled, steamed, roasted, fried, microwaved, boiled or even raw.

As word spreads about the sweet potato's attributes, what was once considered a holiday side dish for Thanksgiving and Christmas has evolved into a year-round staple. The typical American consumes 5 1/2 pounds a year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's an increase of 31 percent since 2000.

California ranks second in the nation in sweet potato production, behind North Carolina. Souza and other farmers in the Atwater-Livingston area of Merced County grow nearly three-quarters of the Golden State's sweet potato crop in the area's rich, sandy soil. Souza said their precise drip irrigation systems minimize water use and maximize production.

"Sweet potatoes will grow in other places, but they aren't as pretty and production isn't as good," he declared. "We grow the best sweet potatoes. Quality-wise you can compare them to the East Coast and ours are a lot prettier."

There are several varieties of sweet potatoes available, and Souza produces quite a few, including orange-skinned Beauregards and Covingtons, the red-skinned Diane and the O'Henry, which is white on the inside but with a golden-colored skin. He also grows the Murasaki and the Kotobuki, Japanese varieties that are purple on the outside and white on the inside.

Don't make the mistake of calling a sweet potato a yam, Souza said with a laugh.

"Everything you buy in the United States in a store is truly a sweet potato. A yam is just a term that Southerners use to differentiate the colored sweet potatoes—the reds and oranges—from the white sweet potatoes," he explained.

California's sweet potato harvest began in late July this year—a little behind schedule because of the cool spring—and will continue into November. But, as Souza points out, sweet potatoes store well and are available to consumers throughout the year.

"Sales now are pretty much going crazy," he said. "Everybody is promoting health and trying to eat healthier. My trainer in the gym touts sweet potatoes as one of the most natural, nutritious foods you can have."

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Steve Adler is a reporter for California Country. He can be reached at 800-698-FARM or Sacramento writer Jim Morris contributed to this story.

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