MOUNT VERNON — Will sweet potatoes grow in Skagit County? What about popping beans?
Carol Miles, professor of vegetable horticulture at the Washington State University Mount Vernon Research Center, is asking those questions through two summer field experiments.
Sweet potatoes are not grown commercially in Washington, and nuna, or popping beans, are a bean native to Peru that pop when heated and are being considered for production in the U.S., according to Miles.
Sweet potatoes need high heat, which creates a challenge for growers in the Pacific Northwest, Miles said. But after receiving inquiries from local growers for about 10 years, she decided to conduct a trial.
For Skagit County farmers, sweet potatoes could serve as a new rotational crop, which are planted to improve soil quality and control pests, she said.
There is also a growing market. Restaurants are upgrading their menus to include sweet potatoes fries, and bodybuilder diets frequently tout the vegetable for its nutritional benefits, she said.
Sweet potatoes saw the largest growth in vegetable farming acreage from 2012 to 2017, according to an April analysis by the Washington Post that examined USDA Census of Agriculture data.
To start the sweet potato trial, Miles ordered slips, which are sprouts from a mature potato, from a North Carolina farm and planted them in early June.
Many plants did not survive due to the long journey, and Miles said she had to replace them twice. The plants are now growing.
The plan is to harvest this fall.
“I think we’ll have something by then,” she said.
In the experiment, Miles is comparing plastic and biodegradable mulches, which control weeds and help the soil retain heat, and how they affect growth.
Miles said she plans to continue the research next year.
The popping bean, the other new crop, expands to twice its size when heated. Miles said there is interest in serving the legume in farm-to-school programs, and also using it as a rotation crop.
“The beans have the same protein as a dry bean, and they’re fun to eat,” she said.
The goal is to grow enough seed this summer to do future studies.