By Lorraine Eaton
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, November 19, 2010; 8:24 PM
CAPE CHARLES, VA. - On a cool November morning, W.T. Nottingham propped a sign outside his family's Eastern Shore farm store: "Honor system/Put money in the jar/If you want sweet potatoes/I'm in the field come get me."
An arrow pointed away from the farmhouse, past the oyster shell drive and across a flat expanse of field. There Nottingham and his tractor traversed the horizon, an occasional puff wafting from the single smokestack.
Cupped steel blades turned the earth inside out, burying leafy green vines. Piled in the tractor's wake were calf-high ridges of moist chocolate dirt studded with Haymans, Nottingham's last sweet potato crop of the year and his most coveted.
Haymans are an ugly, sugary, creamy-white sweet potato, an heirloom variety prized by Eastern Shore residents for generations and one that's moving into the mainstream. Customers from North Carolina to New York had reserved every Hayman sweet potato in Nottingham's field - more than 4,000 pounds - happy that they'd have Haymans for the holidays. He kept a waiting list for hopefuls.
This is Nottingham's third season growing Haymans at his Pickett's Harbor Farms, and for a while, he feared he might fail. Deer dined on the foliage at the perimeter of the field, resulting in baskets full of crooked, carrot-size tubers. A dry summer slowed growth, and then torrential rains made the spuds swell so fast that they split. A wet October delayed harvesting, which had to be done before the first frost.
Even in a perfect season, Haymans confound the few farmers who try to grow them.
Nottingham bent over a ridge, his two gloved hands folded over a heap of loose, sandy soil. Splayed out like fat fingers were three tennis-ball-size sweet potatoes suitable for the market. But a little farther down the row were bunches of tubers as slim as sardines.
"They do crazy things, Haymans," Nottingham said.
They're kin to the morning glory, but Haymans came to the States by sea.
In 1856, Capt. Daniel Hayman coaxed his ship, the Harriet Ryan, into the docks at Elizabeth City, N.C. He had sailed from the West Indies, and stowed in his holds were semitropical white sweet potatoes.
A Methodist minister hurried aboard and bought the lot of them, said David S. Shields, professor of Southern letters at the University of South Carolina, who researched the potato's pedigree. The minister's name has been lost, but the potatoes, dubbed Haymans, spread through the network of Methodist preachers. With Methodists dominant on the Eastern Shore, Haymans took hold.
But even in the first half of the 20th century, when the Eastern Shore was a premier producer of sweet potatoes and Joe DiMaggio crowned the sweet potato queen, the capricious Hayman was grown mostly on small farms and in garden plots, a sort of culinary secret of the people there.
"They're undergoing a kind of revival now," said Bernard Herman, a foodways historian and professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina. Herman was raised on the Eastern Shore eating Haymans.
"It's still not easy to get them," he said. "You still need to know who to go to."
Herman was headed up to Franktown, Va., to his supplier, William Harmon, the 80-year-old dean of the Eastern Shore growers, whose family has harvested Haymans for generations.
Herman found Harmon sitting in a lean-to behind his strikingly green house. His crop had been dug, and in a cardboard-colored field beyond, a row of tractors lay idle. A room off to one side of the lean-to smelled of dry earth. Wooden crates stacked to the ceiling bulged with slender potatoes, next year's seed.
"Hayman, if you can grow him, he ain't no problem to get rid of," Harmon said. "Every year, we grow a little more. . . . The more you grow, the more they want."
Harmon once grew many crops. Today, he plants only greens plus several varieties of sweet potatoes, but mainly Haymans, due to demand. He was waiting for his customers, mostly locals looking for their fix, which cost them $24 for a 40-pound box.
What has kept the Hayman from the mainstream is this: The variety is a heap of trouble for farmers to grow.
It's susceptible to disease. Its yield is inconsistent from year to year. It takes forever to grow. And when Haymans are ready for harvest, they're ugly. Inside, the flesh has a vague green cast. Outside, they're bumpy, with sallow skin veined like an old man's hand, hardly suitable to sit beside the smooth, orange tubers on grocery store shelves.
Back in the 1980s, Virginia Tech took on the Hayman in an attempt to improve the seed stock and develop a mass market. "Hayman Selects" were shipped out in boxes, each potato bearing a gold sticker. Less-perfect specimens were made into chips.
Although the stock improved somewhat, the problems persisted and the experiment ended.
"I would like to bring them back," said Eastern Shore native William T. Baines. "That's the money crop."
Baines started growing Haymans four years ago in Machipongo. This year, he planted 10 acres of them, set the plants closer together to increase yield and expects to harvest 500 bushels, more than anyone on the shore, he said.
Baines sells to locals, farm stand operators as far north as Chincoteague and customers from Virginia Beach to New York. Eventually, he'd like to grow four times as much and sell the seed, too. Haymans for the masses, he said.
Not everyone in the Eastern Shore's fraternity of farmers sees it that way.
W.T. Nottingham, who sells directly to consumers, says he grows Haymans only as a "complement" to his other crops. He also cultivates orange Hernandez and Beauregard sweet potatoes and another white variety called O'Henry, not as sweet as Haymans and sometimes sold by others as substitutes.
"You can't make any money on Haymans," Nottingham said. "I'd have to charge $75 a box."
Over in Machipongo, Bill Jardine, owner of Quail Cove Farms, tends 18 acres of organic sweet potatoes but very few Haymans. His retail and co-op customers can choose from Beauregard, Hernandez, Covington, O'Henry and Porto Rico, a super-sweet orange potato once widely grown on the Eastern Shore for Beech-Nut baby food.
With so many hearty varieties available, each with its own distinctive flavor, color and texture, Jardine says he's not sure why the hoopla over Haymans persists.
But Baines is steadfast in his belief that there's a future in the ugly-duckling sweet potato.
"This year's crop," he said, "is the prettiest I've ever seen."Recipes