But for Harris, who farms in three counties across two climate zones in southern New Jersey, the quest for the perfect, old-time sweet potato is fraught with risk and anxiety.
He took me the other day to his main sweet potato field, 10 acres under intensive cultivation on the outskirts of Cape May. His crop had survived the flooding of Hurricane Sandy, but it was later blackened by a nip of frost. One more heavy frost and five months of work would be for naught as the leafy blackness would descend into the tubers below. His foreman and crews were busy lifting and grading the clumps of elongated tubers. This is an anxious time for Harris, even factoring in that he’s a hands-on guy who sweats the details and is constantly on the cellphone directing operations at his four farm markets. It is not until his fieldworkers unearth the roots that any of them can know whether a season that began in April has paid off, whether the potatoes are productive, unblemished, and spared from diseases and pests.
The pickers might get two or three choice potatoes from each clump, leaving behind as many as half a dozen or more that are undersized, diseased or split.
Harris, 52, is willing to endure the dicey dance with frost and the low yields because these are not your usual sweet potatoes. The type commonly found in supermarkets is plump, orange, cloyingly sweet, and bred for ease of growing and shipping. It is productive, disease-free and early to market, a dream for any grower. But for sweet potato purists, it is simply not as interesting or steeped in regional lore.
The sweet potato is a classic example of why home vegetable gardening is so important. It is an enterprise that connects you to delicious and heirloom varieties missing in big agriculture. Not to mention freshness.
But Harris’s devotion to them has a heroic quality. He grows a lot of different crops, from peaches to, yes, winter Brussels sprouts. But for him, the sweet potato is about honoring the heritage of his native region. He grows the standard supermarket variety to get a jump on the season, but he has brought back heirloom varieties that decades ago defined the richness and diversity of the sweet potato in the Mid-Atlantic region.
“Kenny is from the old school,” said his friend Barry Perlow, a landscape designer with Meadows Farms in Northern Virginia. “He was raised by old time south Jersey farmers. He’s a perfectionist.” Perlow used to manage Harris’s farm market and garden center in Bridgeton, N.J.
Sweet potatoes fall into two basic types, the sweeter varieties popular in the South, known as yams, and the drier, mealier types called Jersey sweets. Botanically, they are all varieties of a New World species of the morning glory family. The true yam, by contrast, is from an unrelated tropical plant that produces huge starchy tubers.