CHAMPAIGN — For months, Jill Uken waited.
The 275 sweet-potato plants she planted last year grew and grew, blanketing the barnyard the Mahomet-Seymour junior borrowed for the season to use as her field. Every so often, a potato would peek up from the soil to give her an idea of what was to come when it came time to harvest, but the mystery adds intrigue to planting a crop that grows under the ground.
“I would say it’s a lot more exciting harvesting sweet potatoes” than corn, she said, “because it’s a little bit of a mystery what’s going to come up on each plant and how big they’re going to be.”
Then, on Oct. 3, when an early first frost killed the plants, it was all hands on deck. Her brother Tyler and father, Brad, manager of the Champaign County Farm Bureau, dug their shovels into the soil while she and her mother, Christine, gathered the potatoes. In all, they gathered around 400, some as big as 3 pounds and others small and underdeveloped, and piled them into the family’s garage.
“Once it frosts,” she said, “the vines turn immediately black, and then at that point, you’ve just got to dig them up no matter what.”
The quick death of the plants due to frost is the reason sweet potatoes aren’t generally grown in Illinois. Instead, they’re a popular crop in the Carolinas and Louisiana. The rarity in the region was one of the reasons the Uken family began growing sweet potatoes as part of an FFA project four years ago, starting with Jill’s brother Nicholas, and then Tyler, who each did it for one year apiece.
“It’s a one-plant, one-harvest crop, you know?” Jill Uken said. “It’s not like green beans, where you’re out there picking every week. You just plant them and harvest them. There’s also the appeal of, people don’t grow sweet potatoes around here, so you get that draw to it. It’s not like a sweet corn stand, where you have quite a bit of those all summer.”
Neither of Jill’s older brothers took to planting sweet potatoes quite like she did.
This year, she decided to plant 500 on a 75-feet-square plot of land at Clearview Farms after its manager, Jim Goss, reached out through her father to offer the space.
In the family’s fourth year of planting sweet potatoes, they’ve built up a following. They sell some to local restaurants and caterers, including Black Dog Smoke and Ale House three years ago. They also set up a stand at Curtis Orchard. Last year, Jill had to adjust because of COVID-19. Instead of selling large batches to vendors, she began advertising and building a brand on her Instagram page, @jills_sweet_potatoes_il, and word spread around Mahomet.
This year, the fans are back.
“People are constantly asking, ‘When are those sweet potatoes going to be ready?’” Christine said.
On Saturday, Jill Uken will talk about her experience growing sweet potatoes in the Illinois Department of Agriculture tent at the state fair as the Illinois Specialty Growers Association’s Farmer of the Day. She’ll tell other kids why they should take up a similar project to hers, which has become a small business in addition to an FFA project.
The labor hasn’t necessarily been easy. The Ukens plant and harvest the potatoes by hand, and Jill maintains them throughout the year. That hasn’t fazed her, though.
“It’s really like the process of knowing I planted them, I raised them, I go out there and water them, and to go out there and harvest and sell them, and to do the whole process,” Jill Uken said. “You’re not out there for a couple of days, and then you go back out there and the vines have doubled in length, and you just see them grow.
“You really do learn some things when you do this about owning your own business and building a brand. It’s been well worth it.”