In our interview, Dr. Alexander M. “Sandy” Stewart, Deputy Commissioner for Agricultural Services at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, provides first-hand insights into the North Carolina sweet potato industry’s current situation and visions for the future.
How would you evaluate the current situation and prospects for sweet potato farming in North Carolina?
Dr. Stewart: Sweet potatoes remain one of the most important crops for North Carolina farmers. North Carolina’s agriculture is incredibly diverse and sweet potatoes play an integral role in that diversity from a crop rotation, cash flow, marketing, and overall farm management standpoint. The export market, especially to Europe, is a true success for North Carolina’s farmers and is a model we want to expand and replicate in other crops. The story of the NC sweet potato is one of a healthy superfood, produced in a sustainable manner, and exported for consumers across the globe. What’s not to like about that!
What was the biggest challenge that NCSP farmers had to face in this extraordinary year 2020?
Dr. Stewart: Farmers, like everyone else, have had to adapt in new and challenging ways. Protecting and keeping our farm labor safe has been an area of emphasis. NC farmers have worked closely with our local health departments, statewide public health officials, Department of Labor, Department of Agriculture, and the university Extension Service to provide personal protective equipment, social distancing, and the best health care possible. Our farmworkers are like family and protecting them has been a priority for farmers across North Carolina.
What visions are there for the future of NCSP farming?
Dr. Stewart: Sustainability is the key to the future of NC sweet potatoes. Sustainability can be defined in many ways; environmental, economic, market access, technology, etc. Because of the innovation of our farmers, our investment in research and technology, and the continued market development of sweet potatoes across the globe, sweet potatoes are sustainable now and positioned well to be so in the future. For the immediate future, we see trade agreements as being very important to our farmers. We all lose when market access is restricted.
What does the NC Department of Agriculture do to protect and improve soil and water resources, or to encourage organic farming?
Dr. Stewart: Almost everything NCDA does has the goal of resilience and sustainability because farmers depend on the natural environment for their livelihood. Soil and water conservation programs are obvious, but some efforts like agricultural research to optimize water use efficiency may be less obvious but still important. NCDA provides consultative agronomic services and helps defray the cost of organic certification. We have a multitude of efforts and programs around resiliency and sustainability which we try and improve upon constantly.
Is there anything else you would like to let the European partners of the NCSP agriculture know?
Dr. Stewart: North Carolina agriculture thrives because of partnerships on many levels. The European partners throughout the supply chain are valued by all NC farmers. When you think about the European-NC partnership, the end result is the availability of a nutritious, tasty, high quality, affordable food on the tables of European consumers. There are many steps between a plant bed in North Carolina and that European dinner plate which require many partners along the way.