This week saw the arrival of our first sweet potatoes in the CSA box from Picadilly Farm. As we unloaded the share boxes onto my porch, Bruce gave me a bit of a view of the journey they take to get here.
Sweet potatoes have become a celebrated staple of winter meals here in Massachusetts: rich with calories and nutrients and flavor, “sweeties” lend themselves to a wide palette of dishes sweet to savory to spices, and fresh sweet potatoes will keep for months at normal household winter temperatures without refrigeration–wow! This incredible resilience and flexibility in our pantries, however, is a product of careful timing, measured care, and faith on the part of growers here.
At Picadilly, the sweet potato harvest is exactly 3/4 of the way complete. It’s all as precisely timed as possible, relying on a predictable 3 months of warmth in well-drained soil (Picadilly and Riverland’s sandy loam is good), followed by hopefully enough dry harvest days distributed evenly over late September and early October. To make the most of the narrow window of warm-season, growers here don’t start with seed–they need to buy in or save small tubers or “slips” from the previous season’s crop. Because they are a tropical plant, sweet potatoes don’t like cold at any stage of their development or storage (don’t put sweet potatoes in your fridge!) and the “slips” or small, rooted pieces of tuber, must be planted only after danger of frost is securely past. After timely planting and then meeting whatever watering needs this season presents, it is time to wait, with hope, while gazing at their beautiful, relatively pest- and drought-resistant, deep green vining above ground selves. As cooler temps and reds and orange color tinges the trees at the edge of the field, at last it is time to reveal the below-ground color, too, to see what sunshine, soil, and care have yielded. Gentle forking of the soil reveals the bounty and growers finally see the upshot of all the care and waiting! However, after they are hauled into the barn, these multitude tubers aren’t yet ready to eat or tuck into storage. The next step is curing: they need to spend a week to ten days in an insulated, heated chamber in the barn, at 85 degrees F, before they are transferred to their cooler (55-70 degree) winter storage area. This curing process and the size the of the special chamber are what has dictated a four-part harvest sequence for Picadilly. About a fourth of their planned harvest each year will fit in that chamber. Hence the need for a relatively even distribution of dry days needed each fall to make it all work!
And so it is with great appreciation and gratitude to these marvelous plants and their patient and dedicated caretakers that I will soon enjoy the first of this season’s many batches of those tasty, brilliantly orange fries!