Specialty grower works on sweet future in Champaign County

staff writer
Specialty grower Jill Uken waters her sweet potatoes with soaker hoses connected to water tanks seen in the back. She uses 12 tanks, one for each crop row in her Champaign County plot.

Sixteen-year-old Jill Uken understands when even horticulture experts question her uncommon specialty crop in Champaign County. Then the Mahomet-Seymour High School junior points to her 500 thriving sweet potato plants as agronomic proof.

“Not a lot of people grow sweet potatoes in Illinois,” Uken said, adding the vegetable is more common in North Carolina, South Carolina, Louisiana and other southern states.

Uken, the daughter of Champaign County Farm Bureau Manager Brad Uken and his wife, Christine, is growing her second crop in a 75-by-75 plot near Mahomet. During the Illinois State Fair, she’ll share her venture at 12:30 p.m. Aug 14 as the Illinois Specialty Growers Association’s Farmer of the Day in the Illinois Department of Agriculture tent.

Planting starts after the potential for a last frost. By hand, Uken plants sweet potato “plugs” of 6-inch vines that are shipped from a Tennessee supplier. Two inches are planted below ground with the rest remaining above the soil surface. Planting a couple of hours before sunset protects the plugs from drying out. Currently Uken is growing two varieties; one is favored for larger, baking potatoes.

The young grower has encountered few pests and no disease problems thus far. Deer favor the tasty vines, and Japanese beetles got into a previous crop, but Uken applied a mixture of Dawn dish soap and water to wash beetles off the plants.

Sweet potatoes are very susceptible to frost. Uken intends to dig her crop by hand around the first week of October, but last year was surprised by an early frost.

“The frost hit, and two days later, the vines were all black. We got them (sweet potatoes) out of the ground as soon as we could,” she added. On average, growers harvest 3 pounds of sweet potatoes per plant.

After the sweet potatoes are dug, Uken spreads them on a tarp under a roof to allow them to cure. Soil must be gently wiped off because the newly harvested crop is soft. Uken lets the harvested potatoes rest for seven to 10 days, which allows the starch to turn to sugar and the skins to cure.

The young grower sells her bagged crop by the pound. Last year, the pandemic caused Uken to pivot when anticipated restaurant and catering markets closed. Instead, the teen began marketing sweet potatoes on Instagram, @jills_sweet_potatoes_il, a practice she will continue this fall. She also sold her crop in an outdoor booth at Curtis Orchard and Pumpkin Patch, Champaign, and plans to sell there again this fall.

Uken can thank her two older brothers, Nicholas and Tyler, who first started the family’s sweet potato venture. Not only did the youngest Uken take on her siblings’ crop, but she also grew sweet potatoes as her FFA supervised agricultural experience project (SAE). Her unique crop set Uken apart as the only specialty crop SAE in her section, but she was joined this year by another FFA member who grew pumpkins.

As Champaign County’s youngest sweet potato grower awaits her second harvest, Uken keeps her friends updated by sharing the latest images of her crop’s progress and may entice them to join her for a sweet harvest this fall.

This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association.