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Haymans, an Eastern Shore sweet potato prized for generations

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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."

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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.

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