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Tar Heel of the Week: Kendall Hill champions the sweet potato

Kendall Hill has always believed in the sweet potato. As a child, he would round up the smaller and misshapen ones from the fields of his family farm to sell in nearby Kinston.

As an adult, he came to see the health benefits of the vegetable over white potatoes – its low sugar content is a boon for diabetics and its superior nutritional profile is attractive to an increasingly health-conscious country.

But the vegetable’s appeal was largely regional, and Hill was among those who wanted to change that.

In the past 20 years, the farmer has been at the forefront of efforts to expand the state’s sweet potato industry, which has more than doubled in acreage in the past decade to 73,000 acres planted last year.

Through his work with trade groups and N.C. State University, he helped pioneer new products, such as frozen sweet potato fries, as well new storage methods and marketing strategies.

Hill is a leader in state agriculture circles; he is active in the N.C. Vegetable Growers Association and is the outgoing president of the N.C. Agribusiness Council.

But sweet potatoes, a crop North Carolina consistently grows more of than any other state, remain his passion. The N.C. Sweet Potato Commission, for which Hill served four terms as president, recently recognized his years of service with its annual award.

Catherine Maxwell, director of the research foundation at the N.C. State agriculture college, credits Hill’s initiative for launching the vegetable’s resurgence.

Among his contributions over the years was to spearhead the creation of a $1.3 million endowment for research in sweet potatoes, offering the first donation and helping to rally other donors.

“The sweet potato industry has grown from being a small, minor crop into a major crop for the state,” says Maxwell. “It’s a real powerhouse, and he’s been a part of all the big innovations that made that happen.”

Staying on the farm

Hill, 75, was born into a Lenoir County farming family that had long focused on vegetables. His grandfather sold them from a mule-drawn cart, and his father from the back of a truck.

“He would go out to Rocky Mount selling collards and cabbage and onions,” Hill says. “And there were always sweet potatoes.”

The family farm was also one that has long embraced new ideas and technologies.

His grandfather was among the first in the state to store sweet potatoes indoors instead of packed into the ground and covered in straw. Later, his father was an early adopter of climate-controlled storage – now a common practice that allows the vegetable to be sold all year.

As a youngster, Hill enjoyed the mechanical side of farming, tinkering with and driving the tractors and other equipment on the farm.

He thought he might go into that side of the business, and started out as an agricultural engineering major at N.C. State University. But he eventually changed his major to horticulture and did research on sweet potato storage methods as an undergraduate.

In the end, he has spent his entire career on his family farm. He says he left only once, taking a job with a trucking company for six months after an argument with his father.

His two brothers also returned to the farm after other careers, and Hill now runs it along with one of his brothers, whose specialty is tobacco, and his son and nephew.

Over the years, the 4,500-acre farm has grown a variety of crops. At one point, Hill says, his farm was the top producer of asparagus in the Southeast, though he doesn’t grow it anymore.

He now grows tobacco, sweet potatoes, lettuce, and a little bit of corn and soybeans – and keeps a close eye on market trends and game-changing technologies.

“In the farming business you have to be on the cutting edge to be successful,” he says, “because if you get on to something new, everybody’s watching you and then in a year or so they’re doing what you’re doing.”

Beyond the tater bin

Hill has certainly been at the front of the pack when it comes to sweet potatoes. In the 1990s, for instance, he built a huge sweet potato house using state-of-the-art ventilation technology being pioneered at N.C. State.

But he felt the market was limited for his favorite vegetable, which is eaten mainly in the South, and particularly around Christmas. Hill knew how nutritious they were and cites high sweet potato consumption during the Great Depression as a sign of their potential.

“People were living off them then,” he says. “I knew that if we could just put it to the public in an attractive way, they would eat it again.”

He started working on new sweet potato products back in the late 1980s, when he and a friend located a machine that could cut sweet potatoes into fries, and researchers at N.C. State started working on bringing sweet potato fries to market.

The fries were a key challenge. Hill concedes they’re nothing new; his father, who hardly liked sweet potatoes, frequently fried them up with his fish. But the hard flesh of sweet potatoes made it too difficult to cut them in a home kitchen, and their irregular shape left a lot of odd pieces as waste.

He gave the idea a major push in 2000, when he helped form a foundation that would fund research into selling sweet potatoes in new ways beyond the humble potato bin. Frozen fries hit the market about seven years ago, and sales have surged ever since.

The research Hill helped fund has been fruitful in other ways. The leftover pieces from this process are used to make a puree that can be put into other products or sold separately. Soon, it will be sold as juice as well.

Hill remains active on the boards of two state agriculture foundations, where he both donates and raises money for agricultural research in a variety of areas.

When it comes to sweet potatoes, he is a little worried that the rapid growth will drive down prices.

But he also has his eyes on new areas for expansion. Researchers are working to perfect baked sweet potato chips, he says, and there remains room for growth in overseas markets.

Hill has no plans to retire any time soon.

“People retire to do what they like to do,” he says. “And I’m already doing that.”

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