Pass the sweet potatoes

November 25, 2008|By JEFF SEMLER

Just two days from now, millions of Americans will sit down and feast on the likes of tons of turkey and mounds of sweet potatoes. Aw yes, Thanksgiving, the most American of holidays, even in light of the economic turmoil that surrounds us, we still reside in the lap of luxury and have a lot to be thankful for.

When it comes to turkey, no country eats the stuff like Americans. The average American eats 18 pounds of turkey each year with about 30 percent of that consumed during the holidays and the remainder consumed the rest of the year in sandwiches, turkey franks and turkey sausage.

The top four turkey producing states are Minnesota, North Carolina, Arkansas and Virginia. Pennsylvania comes in at number eight and Maryland at sixteen.

Early explorers to the New World quickly acquired a taste for turkey and took birds back to Europe. By the 1500s, turkeys were being raised domestically in Italy, France and England. When the Pilgrims and other settlers arrived in America, they were already familiar with raising and eating turkey and naturally included it as part of their Thanksgiving feast.


The wild turkey we usually see in pictures is not the same as the domestic turkey that we serve at Thanksgiving. Domestic turkeys weigh twice what a wild turkey does and are raised on farms. Most domestic turkeys are so heavy they are unable to fly. Wild turkeys live in wooded parts of North America and are the largest game birds found in this part of the world. They spend their days foraging for food like acorns, seeds, small insects and wild berries. They spend their nights in the branches of trees (yes, wild turkeys can fly.).

Our next staple of the Thanksgiving table is the sweet potato. The sweet potato, a tuberous root vegetable belonging to the same family of plants as the morning glory and not the white potato which is a member of the nightshade family that also boosts the tomato as a member, are native to Central America, considered a staple in many countries and have been cultivated in Southern states since the 16th century.

You might be interested to learn that the sweet potato may be moving from the grocers' shelves to the gas pump. That's right, if the falling price of oil doesn't give us memory loss and thus ignore the need to wean ourselves from petroleum. In experiments, sweet potatoes grown in Maryland and Alabama yielded two to three times as much carbohydrate for fuel ethanol production as field corn grown in those states, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists report.

The sweet potato carbohydrate yields approached the lower limits of those produced by sugarcane, the highest-yielding ethanol crop. Another advantage for sweet potatoes is that they require much less fertilizer and pesticide than corn.

Lew Ziska, a plant physiologist at the ARS Crop Systems and Global Change Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., and colleagues at Beltsville and at the ARS National Soil Dynamics Laboratory in Auburn, Ala., performed the study.

The disadvantages of sweet potato are higher start-up costs, particularly because of increased labor at planting and harvesting times.

If economical harvesting and processing techniques could be developed, the data suggests that sweet potato in Maryland and Alabama have greater potential than corn as ethanol sources.

Further studies are needed to get data on inputs of fertilizer, water, pesticides and estimates of energy efficiency. Overall, the data indicate it would be worthwhile to start pilot programs to study growing cassava and sweet potato for ethanol, especially on marginal lands.

The additional research could help develop new biofuel sources without diverting field corn supplies from food and feed use to fuel.

As you settle in to enjoy your Thanksgiving celebrations, I hope you will look at the turkey and sweet potato in a little different light. I trust you will enjoy food, family, friends and fellowship, the way every day, not just Thanksgiving Day, should be enjoyed.


On Nov. 12, Extension Educator Beth Bubacz Nichols reported on the Kids Growing with Grain program.

This education activity would not be possible without funding assistance from the Maryland Grain Producer Utilization Board, the volunteerism of Clear Spring and Boonsboro FFA members, 4-H members and the assistance of Maryland Cooperative Extension and Agriculture Experiment Station staff.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Cooperative Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached weekdays by telephone at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by e-mail at

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