Arnold Farms: a sweet (potato) tradition of excellence
*Readers: be sure to view the delicious sweet potato recipes following the slideshow at the bottom of this page.
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, firstname.lastname@example.org
Just off Hwy 401 outside Darlington, farmer Bobby Arnold is hitting his fall harvest stride as another crop of award-winning sweet potatoes comes in from the fields.
“It gets pretty busy this time of year,” he says, noting that with customers placing orders and the busy agricultural fair and festival circuit, there is some pressure for his 30 acres of sweet potato fields to produce the high-quality root vegetables that earned Arnold Farms a sterling reputation.
Mother Nature, however, is being a bit difficult. Harvest time is usually late September and early October, but getting the last of the mature sweet potatoes out of the ground has been complicated by massive rains in recent weeks. As a root crop, sweet potatoes can go bad or rot in excessively wet soil.
“You have to worry about all that water they’re standing in because they’ll sour,” Bobby says.
And losing any sweet potatoes would be a shame, because these particular ‘taters are known far and wide for their beautiful flavor. Much of Arnold Farms’ crop is the Covington variety, with plants sporting large, arrowhead-shaped leaves and pink flowers. The sweet potato it yields features smooth rosy skin and bright orange flesh, making it highly desirable for use in everything from pies to fries.
Yield in a good year is about 300 bushels per acre, though that varies by field and by variety. Sweet potatoes do well in the Pee Dee’s sandy soil, which Arnold calls “tobacco land” even though he quit growing tobacco more than fifteen years ago.
“We used to grow about 200 acres of tobacco… but I saw the writing on the wall that it was time to get out of it,” he says.
In fact, Bobby doesn’t grow any row crops now, but leases out much of his 480-acre spread for other farmers to do so. Arnold Farms uses only certified seed, and agents from Clemson University Extension routinely inspect the sweet potatoes for quality, health, and insect activity. Bobby says they’re mostly on the lookout for potato weevils, which have devastated crops in other states.
Each year, Arnold saves good, if small, sweet potatoes to use next season as seeds. These little ones are set down in five-foot beds sometime in March, weather permitting. They require irrigation and tending early in the growing cycle and hotter, drier weather as they mature.
Getting the crop in requires about eight workers to hop on board a digger trailer as a tractor driver pulls it through the fields. A triangular blade digs into the soil and lifts the potatoes onto a conveyor, which runs up to the worker’s seating area. Their job is to pick out the best sweet potatoes by size and condition and sort them into bins for #1 (large, best quality) and #2 (medium, good quality) types. Anything they deem not up to snuff due to size, surface flaws, or shape goes off the back of the conveyor and falls to the ground, joining the sweet potatoes the digger missed.
Arnold Farms doesn’t let those go to waste, though; folks can follow the digger through the field and pick up all the loose sweet potatoes they want for a few dollars per bushel. Bobby says during the peak of digging season, there could be dozens of people walking the fields behind the digger, gathering enough affordable and nutritious root vegetables to carry them through the winter.
“If we don’t catch something, we can’t sell it,” says Bobby, shrugging. “Some people over the years have tried to run up and take a few from the #1 bins, but the other folks will tell on them. They know it’s a good deal and they don’t want anyone to ruin it.”
Once the sweet potatoes are uprooted, they go to the curing shed for a wash by two workers operating a very loud and very efficient machine, and then at least a 24-hour rest. The climate controlled curing shed is kept cool and moist, with the 85-percent humidity monitored on a gauge that Bobby pretty much ignores.
“By now, I don’t even need to look at it. I can walk into the shed and just feel if something’s off,” he says.
After their spa day in the shed, the ‘taters are carefully boxed and shipped out to customers. Bobby delivers everything himself in a battered white cargo van that might as well be a Brinks armored transport for all the jewels it carries.
This month, he’s taking about twenty-four bushels to the SC State Fair for judging and auction – something he’s been doing for over 40 years. When showing off the rose-skinned beauties he will use to compete this year, Bobby admits that Arnold Farms regularly takes top prize for sweet potatoes. He’ll also have about 100 boxes for sale at the South Carolina Sweet Potato Festival, scheduled for Oct. 10 in downtown Darlington, but you should get there early if you want to buy some.
“We sell out every year,” says Bobby, showing a sturdy brown paper sack that holds about eight pounds of sweet potatoes. “The older folks like to buy them in these bags so they can tote them around while they’re at the festival.”
Customers have shared various recipes for Arnold Farms sweet potatoes, like pies and casseroles and breads, but Bobby says when it comes to enjoying the fruits – or root vegetables – of his labor, he and wife Ann prefer to keep things simple.
“We eat a lot of sweet potatoes,” he admits with a chuckle. “But I love a baked sweet potato, cut down the middle with butter and cinnamon sugar. That tastes real good.” Mobile users, please click link to see photo gallery: Sweet Potatoes: Arnold Farm, Darlington SC
Sweet Potato Recipes
Sweet Potato Pancakes with Honey Cinnamon Butter
For the honey-cinnamon butter
• 1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
• 1 1/2 teaspoons honey
• 1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
For the sweet-potato pancakes
• 2 large eggs
• 1 cup buttermilk, plus more if necessary
• 2 1/2 tablespoons vegetable oil
• 1 cup store-bought pancake mix
• 1 small pinch ground nutmeg
• 1 small sweet potato, boiled, peeled, and mashed (about 1 1/2 cups)
1. Beat together the butter, honey, and cinnamon until smooth. Transfer to the refrigerator until ready to use.
2. In a large bowl, whisk together the eggs, buttermilk, and oil. Stir in the pancake mix and nutmeg until just combined. Fold in the sweet potato. If the batter seems too thick, add more buttermilk until it reaches the desired consistency (it should be thick but still pourable).
3. Place a large, greased griddle or pan over medium-high heat. Working in batches, spoon the batter onto it and cook until the surface of the pancake is covered with bubbles, 2 to 3 minutes. Flip and cook the other side until golden, 1 to 2 minutes more. Serve, topped with the honey-cinnamon butter and a little maple syrup.
Crispy Baked Sweet Potato Fries
• Sweet potatoes, at least one per person. Medium-sized sweet potatoes with smooth, firm, evenly toned skin usually make the best sweet potato fries.
• Corn starch. A big sprinkle’s worth. (optional)
• Olive oil. A couple of tablespoons or so. Enough to lightly and evenly coat the fries.
• Salt, pepper and spices. Amy suggested cumin, but I much prefer cayenne pepper, paprika or curry powder. Garlic is great as well. It’s up to you!
1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Peel the sweet potatoes and cut them into fry-shaped pieces (see photos). Try to cut them into similarly sized pieces so the fries will bake evenly.
2. Toss the uncooked fries into a mixing bowl or a plastic bag, or just onto your baking sheet. Sprinkle with cornstarch (if using) and pour in a few tablespoons of olive oil, enough to lightly coat the fries. Season with salt, pepper, and spices. I’d try to use half a teaspoon per potato or so. Mix/shake to distribute evenly (corn starch should be evenly mixed in so there are no powdery spots).
3. Pour the fries directly onto a dark, non-stick baking sheet for best results (lining with aluminum foil produces mixed results and parchment paper can burn in the hot oven). Arrange your fries in a single layer and don’t overcrowd, otherwise they will never crisp up.
4. Bake for 15 minutes, then flip the fries so they can cook on all sides. I find the easiest way to flip them is with a metal spatula. Section by section, scoop up about ten fries and flip them with a quick turn of the wrist.
5. Bake for 10 to 15 more minutes, or until the fries are crispy. You’ll know they’re done when the surface of the fries change from shiny orange to a more matte, puffed up texture. It’s essential to bake them long enough, otherwise they won’t be crispy. Don’t worry if the edges are a little bit brown; they will taste more caramelized than burnt.
Sweet Potato Pecan Pie
(from Lorrie Sterling at allrecipes.com)
1 (9 inch) unbaked pie crust
2 cups cooked and mashed sweet potatoes
3/4 cup white sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 2/3 cups light cream (or evaporated milk)
3 tablespoons butter, softened
2/3 cup packed brown sugar
2/3 cup chopped pecans
Bake sweet potatoes until tender, peel and mash. Make sure all lumps are removed, straining if necessary.
Lightly beat eggs. Blend together eggs and sweet potatoes. Stir in sugar, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and cloves. Blend in cream. Pour into pie shell.
Bake in preheated oven at 400 degrees F (205 degrees C) 45-55 minutes or until knife inserted halfway between center and edge of pie comes out clean. Cool completely on rack.
To make Caramelized Pecan Topping: Combine butter or margarine, brown sugar, and pecans. Gently drop by spoonfuls over cooled pie to cover top. Broil 5 inches below heat until mixture begins to bubble, about 3 minutes. Watch carefully, if cooked too long, top will turn syrupy. Cool on rack.
Five ways sweet ‘taters are good for you!
1. High nutritional value – 1 cup of sweet potatoes provides 65% of your daily allowance of Vitamin C, with bonus nutrients like calcium, folate, potassium, and the key anti-oxidant beta-carotene. minimum necessary daily amount of Vitamin C. Sweet potatoes are also high in calcium, folate, potassium and beta-carotene.
2. Low glycemic index – meaning the sweet potato won’t cause a spike in blood sugar levels. Its glycemic load is about 17 per serving, whereas a white potato carries a glycemic load of 29.
3. Easing of muscle cramps – via the high potassium content. Potassium deficiency is often tied to muscle cramps, so enjoy your favorite sweet potato dish and reap the relaxing benefits.
4. Great for your skin – with high levels of Vitamin A and beta-carotene, the sweet potato delivers protection from skin damaging free radicals.
5. Get out in the garden – and grow your own! Sweet potatoes are fairly easy to plant and can grow in your own backyard vegetable patch, especially here in the warm South Carolina climate. They suffer from very few diseases and only need consistent watering early in the growth cycle. To learn more about growing sweet potatoes, visit scliving.coop/home–garden/bountiful-sweet-potatoes
And remember, to gain the maximum nutitional impact from your sweet potatoes, keep the skins on whenever possible and consume them with a little bit of fat (Butter!) to help the body absorb all those vitamins and minerals.