The U.S. State That Produces The Most Sweet Potatoes

Many folks are already aware that the sweet potato isn't really a potato. It isn't a yam, either, even if it's sometimes called that in the U.S. to differentiate varieties (via Encyclopedia Britannica). Did you know, however, that the potato actually got its name from the sweet potato — according to the University of Missouri — and not the other way around?

Let's get to what a sweet potato actually is rather than what it isn't, though. The sweet potato plant belongs to the morning glory family. It's got long, trailing stems, as well as clustered flowers in shades of pink and rosy violet. While most of the plant is edible, per Harvard, its culinary focus lies upon its tuberous root.

The sweet potato root can be spindly, pointed, or oblong with copper skin and flesh ranging from brown to white — shades of purple, red, orange, and yellow in between. They unsurprisingly taste sweet and can be cooked, whole or mashed, then eaten as is or added to dishes like salads, soups, and pies. NC Cooperative Extension notes that sweet potato chips and microwavable sweet potatoes are also becoming more popular. Plus, marshmallows and sweet potatoes are a classic Thanksgiving combo. However, they're often used in healthier recipes, due to their fiber, potassium, and vitamins. If you get some for yourself, store them in a cool, dry place and scrub them before cooking. When Americans in particular purchase sweet potatoes, there's a strong chance they're from one particular state.

North Carolina leads the nation

The Tarheel State is the leading producer of sweet potatoes in the United States. As noted by the North Carolina Sweetpotato Commission, the Old North State first achieved that honor in 1971 and has held onto the ranking ever since. Around 100,000 acres of sweet potatoes are harvested in North Carolina each year, which is more than other top-producing states like Mississippi, Louisiana, and California combined. Dozens of North Carolina counties like Johnston, Sampson, and Wilson contribute to this growth, which altogether accounts for about 2/3 of all U.S. sweet potatoes. As documented by the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service, the state produced over 200,000 tons of sweet potatoes worth nearly $400 million as recently as 2021. It's no wonder the sweet potato is the official state vegetable of North Carolina (via NC Cooperative Extension).

North Carolina is home to a lot of good food, but why is it that sweet potatoes, specifically, go hand-in-hand with the Tarheel State? Per Encyclopedia Britannica, sweet potatoes do best in tropical yet temperate environments. The crop requires a minimum of four warm-weather months and light, crumbly soil like clay and sand in order to yield plentifully. North Carolina's climate is hot and moist, which enables cultivation from spring through fall, and its soil is richly fertile, making it perfectly suited for sweet potatoes. Despite this compatibility, however, sweet potatoes aren't native to North Carolina.

Sweet potatoes originate farther south

Sweet potatoes are indeed American, at least, in the broad sense of the word. The University of Missouri explains sweet potatoes are thought to come from tropical South America, originally. Indigenous peoples across the continent have eaten the plant for 5,000 years and dubbed the crop "batatas." When the Columbian Exchange occurred, this transformed into "patata" in Spanish, "patate" in French, and "potato" in English. Sweet potatoes made it over to Europe before potatoes did, so we can safely conclude "potato" first referred to the sweet potato itself.

That wasn't the first time sweet potatoes traveled abroad, though. As NPR notes, this American crop made its way to Polynesia by about A.D. 1,000. While it's possible a bird or some seaweed carried seeds over, experts believe Polynesians visited America and brought the food home with them. In the process, they also spread it to places like Hawaii and New Zealand.

What about North America? It turns out, North Carolina wasn't even the first state in the nation to grow sweet potatoes. The plant was brought to Virginia in the 1600s, then it spread farther north and back down south from there. Natives and non-natives alike started cultivating it all across the land. The Tarheel State just so happened to be the sweet spot, and to this day, the crop is still more popular in the South than the North. Even scientist George Washington Carver took an interest in sweet potatoes. Pretty sweet, huh?