David Riley, an entomology professor in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, was quoted in The Washington Post about vegetable farming in America.
Farmers are planting sweet potatoes and leafy greens in the place of one-time basics such as sweet corn, green beans, peas and white potatoes. Once every five years, the USDA Census of Agriculture provides a definitive guide to the trends behind the nation’s farms and diets. The cultivation of sweet potatoes increased by 47,257 acres or 37.6% from 2012 to 2017, the biggest jump of any vegetable. Romaine lettuce is up by 22,780 acres, and spinach increased by 23,592 acres. Sweet potatoes have fewer carbs and calories and higher levels of vitamins A and C than in white potatoes. North Carolina leads the nation in sweet potato acreage, and romaine and spinach are concentrated in California. Sweet corn lost 75,972 acres. Green beans and peas suffered most in places where they’re primarily processed for canning or freezing. Black-eyed pea acreage fell across the South, mostly due to pest management.
Riley works with vegetable pests like cowpea curculio, which has decimated the state’s black-eyed pea fields. The common name cowpea stems from the vines’ use as cattle feed. Acreage peaked in 1937 and has ebbed and flowed since, this small weevil a near-constant threat.
“New World beans have natural resistance to the weevils we have in the Americas, but if you take an Old World bean like cowpeas, they don’t have that natural resistance,” said Riley, who works at the Vegetable Entomology Research Lab. He said that despite the pest there have been recent pendulum swings back the other way: Around 2010, when Southern cuisine became trendy in restaurants, black-eyed pea acreage increased. “The small growers will continue to try. It’s frustrating, because there’s no current commercial solution.”