By F.H. Jeter, Extension Editor, N.C. State University, Raleigh, as published in the Charlotte Observer and in the Wadesboro Messenger, April 29, 1943
The late David R. Coker of Hartsville was a dreamer as well as a scientist and a business man. Such a combination of talent in one person is a great rarity. Mr. Coker dreamed into existence one of the great seed producing centers in the South and, with his capable associates, did much to improve the yields and quality of crops grown in the South. If the results of his dreaming paid him dividends, more honor to him because that is the traditional American way.
But while he was a great dreamer, he was at the very same time so very practical that he could adapt the results of his dreams to everyday life. I liked that about him most of all. I recall back in the days of the depression when agricultural leaders were calling upon the people of the land to “live-at-home,” to grow more food at home, to assure themselves of a food supply first of all, I heard the clear call from Mr. Coker to grow more sweet potatoes.
His appeal was not couched in high-sounding phrases. He simply said that every cotton farmer would who will to put in a patch of sweet potatoes and called attention to the food value of the roots. He didn’t say anything about their vitamin content because vitamins were relatively new at that time. But Mr. Coker knew from practical experience that sweet potatoes supplied some of the best food we could get at the lowest price per pound and that the crop is about as easy to grow as any other produced in the South. I recall even today some 15 years later, how he pointed out that the lowliest tenant on the most obscure farm knew how to grow sweet potatoes and Mr. Coker gave some indication of the yield that might be expected from a small patch of one-fourth of an acre.
That was one practical way of assuaging the hunger pangs of the depression era and unless I am mightily mistaken, Mr. Coker would again champion the sweet potato if he were alive today. In the first place, there is a ready sale for all produced above home needs. In the second place, the sweets are selling at good prices particularly where they are of good quality, free of disease, and properly cured.
In the third place, if the sweets are not needed at home and cannot be sold profitably, they make the best kind of livestock feed; and, since more meat is so badly needed over the nation, perhaps this is but another way of producing some of that meat. For these three reasons alone, therefore, this column makes bold to preach a little about growing a food supply and more especially about adding sweet potatoes to the list of food crops. I think every farm in the Carolinas should have at least one-fourth of an acre of sweets set out this summer, and it were better if an acre or more were planted per farm.
The Nancy Hall is one of the tested old varieties that everyone used to eat. Now we have gone more to Porto Rico variety with the Louisiana strain and the North Carolina Strain No. 1 enjoying greatest popularity. These three kinds have proved superior to all other varieties in this section and if a person cannot grow his own slips this season, he should buy at least 3,100 certified slips from some accredited plant grower. It will take 3,100 slips to set one-fourth of an acre when the plants are placed 12 inches apart in rows 3 ½ feet apart.
Sweet potatoes seem to do best on a sandy or sandy loam soil that is not too fertile. In other words, if the garden spot is very rich or is of the dark or heavy soil, it is not a good place for the sweets. They will be more subject to diseases in such a place. However, rather than not have any potatoes at all, plant them wherever space may be available.
Prof. M.E. Gardner, horticulturist of the North Carolina Experiment Station, says sweet potatoes are just coming into their own. He foresees a day right soon when pigs and other livestock will be eating shoe-string potatoes as a regular part of their diet. Chickens will enjoy a ration of sweet potato meal from dehydrated or dried potatoes and sows will enjoy succulent silage made from the vines and the tubers cut up together and forced into the silo. The dried potatoes fed to poultry and hogs allow a full use of all the big jumbos and the little strings. The tobacco barn may be used for the curing or the more elaborate sweet potato curing house.
At any rate, the dried sweets will permit easier and longer storage. This dehydrated product also gives the livestock and poultry a more concentrated ration tan when the sweets are dug fresh from the field, cut up and fed. As a matter of fact, Mr. Gardner says tests made with selected logs of pigs by the Experiment Station show that the sweets can replace corn. Most folks can grow more sweet potatoes on an acre of land than they can corn.
About the vines, Mr. Gardner says, “Thousands of tons of sweet potato vines are wasted in eastern North Carolina each year. Some growers harvest before frost but a large majority of vines are frosted before harvest and rendered useless for feed. Thus a highly nutritious and vitamin-rich feed source is lost. We have been conducting tests since 1941 to determine the value of the sweet potato vines and roots when fed to dairy cattle. We cannot give definite results with only one year of testing but our results indicate that milk flow, body weight, and general condition of the cows were as good as when fed corn silage.” He added that sweet potato silage is also rich in carotene or vitamin A. It looks, therefore, as if those who have been joking about this great staple food of the South might have the laugh on them, and that, after all, the Southern farmer knows what he is about. If he is wise, he will grow still more sweet potatoes this year.
For more information on David R. Coker, see http://www.knowitall.org/legacy/laureates/David%20R.%20Coker.html