Yams or sweet potatoes?

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, November 29, 2006

NATCHEZ &8212; When sitting around the Thanksgiving table and enjoying grandma&8217;s candied yams, you might want to ask yourself, are those really yams?

Here in the South, the yam and the sweet potato are often synonymous but in fact the two are not related.

Yams are traditionally grown in Africa and Asia and can grow up to six feet in length, while sweet potatoes are native to the Americas, were domesticated more than 5,000 years ago and weigh approximately 20 ounces.

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Louis Guedon has been farming sweet potatoes for Church Hill Produce in Jefferson County for 16 years.

Guedon said he raises the crop at his fields in Anna&8217;s Bottom.

&8220;Growing sweet potatoes is a very labor intensive job,&8221; Guedon said. &8220;Every sweet potato has been handled by at least two pairs of hands.&8221;

To grow a sweet potato crop, Guedon said the first step is to transplant seed-potatoes; small potatoes about the size of a lemon, from the mother potato plants, then plant them in the ground.

This is usually done from March 1-15, Guedon said.

During the first two weeks in May, Guedon said the plants from the seed-potatoes are taken the fields and planted.

&8220;After about 90 days the potatoes are ready to be harvested,&8221; Guedon said.

To harvest the potatoes, Guedon said a special potato-harvesting machine plucks the potato from the ground and about 12 to 14 men stand on the back and place the potatoes in large 1,000 lbs. bins.

The potatoes are then placed in storage facilities called kilns where they maintain a constant temperature of 60 degrees and a humidity level of 85 percent, Guedon said.

Guedon said the reason people might have trouble distinguishing a sweet potato from yams is because of the potato&8217;s transformation during those 90 days.

&8220;While they sit in the kilns, the potatoes turn from very starchy to a very sugary,&8221; Guedon said. &8220;This is the reason they taste so sweet around Thanksgiving.&8221;

National Agriculture Statistics Service Director Tommy Gregory said sweet potato yields might be down this year but more than 18,000 acres have been harvested.

Guedon said his yield this year is down compared from last year but it is still a good crop.

After the harvest, his potatoes are marketed to warehouses in the South and Midwest, and then ready to sell in stores, Guedon said.