Mr. Sweet Potato’s Legacy

What’s the best way to honor a “Yambassador” who meant so much to your industry, livelihood and state? NC State University professor Henry M. Covington was a longtime extension specialist whose research and partnerships with growers spurred the growth of North Carolina’s sweet potato industry. He passed away in 2004, but the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission (NCSPC) established an endowment to honor the man affectionately known as “Mr. Sweet Potato” and to ensure that his legacy would continue.

Covington served on NC State’s horticultural science faculty from 1948 to 1974. Growers throughout the state appreciated his creative and informative Cooperative Extension programs and farm-based research trials of new varieties and new production and storage techniques. With his help, yields per acre more than doubled — far surpassing other states — and North Carolina became the largest grower of sweet potatoes in the country.

Today, North Carolina sweet potatoes feed the world. In fact, those sweet, orange-colored root vegetables that many call yams are actually sweet potatoes. The average American consumes more than seven pounds of sweet potatoes per year, and North Carolina grows half of those. North Carolina growers also export their crop to other countries. That’s no small potatoes for the state’s economy.

Covington was a leader in many sweet potato and yam organizations; one even dubbed him a “Tarheel Yambassador.” In 2007, to recognize his important work and to sustain his many contributions to the industry, the NCSPC established the Henry M. Covington Endowment for Excellence in Sweet Potato Research and Extension in NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The endowment helps fund interdisciplinary research to develop new sweet potato varieties, better pest- and disease-control methods and optimal production approaches, and extension programs to help growers incorporate best practices into their operations to increase productivity and profits.

In 2008, the NCSPC launched a Campaign for Excellence to build the value of the Covington Endowment to ensure NC State’s valuable partnership with the industry continues for generations to come. Many growers generously stepped forward, and the commission was able to quickly achieve its $1 million fundraising goal.

Kendall Hill, co-owner of Tull Hill Farms in Kinston, is the chair of the NCSPC’s Campaign for Excellence and its driving force. A 1962 NC State graduate in horticultural science, Hill is a third-generation agricultural producer who is widely recognized for leadership and innovation. The distinguished alumnus has maintained close ties with the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, collaborating on research and serving on several advisory boards.

Kendall Hill is the co-owner of Tull Hill Farms in Kinston and the chair of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission's Campaign for Excellence.
Kendall Hill is the co-owner of Tull Hill Farms in Kinston and the chair of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission’s Campaign for Excellence.

“There are a lot of great sweet potato researchers at NC State, and we wanted to make sure that funding would always be available for their work,” he explained of his decision to establish the Kendall Hill Endowment. It feeds into the Covington Endowment and was one of the campaign’s first leadership gifts.

David L. Godwin, a third-generation sweet potato farmer and owner of Godwin Produce Co. in Dunn, and his wife, Barbara, were also among the first to support the campaign. They established an endowment in honor of his father and grandfather, both longtime leaders in North Carolina’s sweet potato industry. Income from the David Anthony Godwin and Enoch E. Godwin Sr. Endowment also feeds directly into the Covington Endowment to support its priorities.

“Our industry is in the position we are in today because of the research that has been done at NC State,” said Godwin, a 1987 graduate in biological and agricultural engineering. “When the industry got started, the whole production process was very rudimentary. Over the years, with the help of NC State, we’ve changed our planting methods, developed new varieties, improved our storage handling; basically, everything has changed. As farmers, there are many things we can do, but the help of NC State researchers and extension specialists gets us there much more quickly and efficiently.”

David L. Godwin is another third-generation sweet potato farmer and owner of Godwin Produce Co. in Dunn.
David L. Godwin is another third-generation sweet potato farmer and owner of Godwin Produce Co. in Dunn.

“If it hadn’t been for those people who supported this work in the past, we wouldn’t be where we are today,” added Godwin, a 1987 graduate in biological and agricultural engineering. “That’s why my wife and I, and others in the industry, felt it was extremely important that we participate, to make sure that our industry remains sustainable.”

At a dinner the commission held to celebrate meeting its $1 million goal, Hill proclaimed, “We need to keep going!” The campaign chair immediately pledged another $25,000 to the endowment and encouraged his fellow growers to do the same. The organization now hopes to raise $2 million. How sweet that will be: for NC State, for North Carolina’s growers, and for who enjoys this delicious, nutritious treat.