A Few Bright Agri-Bites

How much do you know about strawberries, almonds and sweet potatoes? These crops are staples in many American’s diets but aside from picking them up at grocery stores, your knowledge about them may be minimal.

Let’s change that, shall we?

In SN’s June/July 2019 feature story “A Few Bright Agri-Bites,” written by the SN editorial team, historic facts and interesting trivia tidbits were given on three quintessential industries—soybeans, peanuts and poultry. In the same fashion, let’s explore strawberries, almonds and sweet potatoes. How many of these tasty morsels do you already know all about?

Strawberries

Red and bursting with juicy flavor, it’s no wonder that Americans love strawberries. Consumption of these ruby-colored berries has increased as more consumers try to integrate additional fresh produce into their diets, crop yields have improved and imported strawberries have enabled year-round supply. In 2017 alone, the United States harvested 1.6 billion pounds of strawberries—an amount valued at $3.5 billion. And according to the USDA, Americans eat nearly 3.5 pounds of fresh strawberries every year!

With its temperate climate, California is ideal for year-round strawberry growing, but the climate in other states limit the growing season to be about five months out of the year. (Some states have a growing season of just three weeks!) In fact, the Golden State is a leader in strawberry production, producing over 91% of the entire domestic crop. Just how many pounds does California produce in a year? About one billion…wow! But don’t forget Florida--the Sunshine State grow most of the country’s winter crop of strawberries.

Here’s another mindboggling statistic on California-grown strawberries: If all the strawberries grown in California in one year were laid berry to berry, they would wrap around the world 15 times.

Did you know?

  • There are 200 seeds on an average strawberry.
  • Do not rinse cut strawberries under water until you are ready to eat them—it can speed up spoiling.
  • Strawberries are a member of the rose family.
  • The overall flavor of strawberries is determined by the weather and the stage of ripeness when it was harvested.
  • Strawberries are a great indicator of spring—they are the first fruit to ripen.

Almonds

This tear-dropped shape nut can do it all—milk, snacks, flours, butters, oils, extracts, pastes and much more. The almond industry has ballooned year after year as the demand for plant-based foods has increased. In 2017, it hit the two-billion-pound mark: For the first time ever, more than two billion pounds of almonds were exported. Sales of almond milk grew by 250% between 2011-2015.

Although almonds are incredibly popular, and the industry continues to dominate, it takes a lot—resources, patience and water—to grow the favored nut.

Almond farming is a long-term commitment as orchards produce for about 25 years, and the first crop is ready for harvest about three years after planting. California is an ideal place to grow these uniquely shaped nuts because of its Mediterranean climate. During California’s cool and wet winters (November through January), almonds trees are dormant. When the temperatures warm up and the ground gets drier, buds begin to swell. Almond trees bloom pink and white blossoms between mid-February and mid-March. Most almond trees do not self-pollinate, farmers often bring in beekeepers to set up hives to help pollinate the blossoms. So, every almond you eat can be traced back to a honey-bee pollinated almond blossom.

Throughout May and June, the almond kernels slowly grow and mature to full size, with a shell hardening around it and also protected by a fuzzy hull. In July, the hull splits open and that enables the kernel within to dry out. Just before harvesting, the hull turns from green to straw-yellow in color and opens completely. August is the beginning of the almond harvest and the trees are vigorously shaken via mechanical tree “shakers.” Once shaken to the ground, almonds stay on the floor for up to 10 days to dry out, before a “sweeper” machine comes by to sweep them up.

Once harvested, the almonds move onto a facility where the kernels’ hulls and shells are removed and are then sorted by size. (Don’t worry: The outer shells and hulls can be used for dairy feed, livestock bedding and to even generate electricity.) Once sorted, they are kept in climate-controlled storage facilities until shipping or further processing.

As California is a top almond grower and was recently plagued by years-long draught, controversy has arose concerning the amount of water needed to grow almonds. Because it takes one gallon of water to produce a single almond, almond growers have invested time and resources into improving growing practices. Farmers are accelerating the use of irrigation practices and exploring sustainable water resources. And since 1994, farmers have seen a dramatic decrease in the amount of resources needed to farm almonds—there has been a 33% decrease in the amount of water needed to grow a pound of almonds, according to the Almond Board of California.

Did you know?

  • The Romans gifted newlyweds with almonds as a charm of fertility.
  • Almonds are California’s top agricultural export.
  • It takes about two cups of almonds to make a half gallon of almond milk.
  • Ninety-one percent of almond orchards are grown at family farms.
  • The California almond industry generates $11 billion to the state’s GDP and employs 104,000 employees across the state.

Sweet Potatoes

You’d probably never guess which state grows the most sweet potatoes. We’ll give you three clues:

  • The state bird is the Cardinal.
  • Krispy Kreme Doughnuts was founded in a popular city.
  • The Wright brothers successfully took to the air at the beaches.

Give up? Since 1971, thanks to its hot climate and fertile soil, North Carolina has dominated the sweet potato market by producing the most. In 2016, The Tar Heel State harvested nearly 95,000 acres of sweet potatoes—nearly 30,000 more than California, Mississippi and Louisiana combined.

North Carolina provides the perfect climate for sweet potatoes, and the vegetable requires 150 frost-free days to grow. Sweet potatoes are often planted about one month after the last spring frost, and it takes about 100 days for the plants to mature. To harvest, they need to be dug directly out of the ground. Sweet potatoes are easy to grow and just a few plants can produce a very generous harvest. Although they’re needy when it comes to ideal growing climate, sweet potatoes have very few pests/diseases and are drought and heat tolerant.

But sweet potatoes straight from the ground do not have that hallmark sweet taste—they need to be cured. Curing enables a second skin to form over the scratches and bruises that often occur during digging. The curing process takes 10 to 14 days.

What you have probably called a yam, is actually a sweet potato. Rough, scaly and incredibly low in beta carotene, yams are a starchy edible root imported to America often from the Caribbean. While sweet potato flesh can vary in color—from whit to orange and even purple—orange sweet potatoes were marketed as yams to help consumers distinguish them from the white varieties.

Did you know?

  • There are over 400 varieties of sweet potatoes.
  • Sweet potatoes can be distilled to make vodka.
  • The official vegetable of North Carolina is the sweet potato.
  • In addition to the tuber (or root), you can also eat the leaves, shoots and stems!
  • In an average year, 260 billion pounds of sweet potatoes are produced globally, making it an incredibly important crop.

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