The entrance to Pine Knot Farms, just north of Hillsborough in Hurdle Mills, is hard to miss this time of year. Hay bales, pumpkins and yellow mums sit under a large sign recognizing farm owner Stanley Hughes as the N.C. Cooperative Extension’s 2004 Small Farmer of the Year. A soft-spoken man with large hands and an inscrutable smile, Hughes is a third-generation African-American farmer known as one of the first in the state to grow certified organic tobacco. The Cooperative Extension calls him a progressive farmer, one who can recover from changes in the tobacco industry and stand up to competition from corporate farms.

Hughes sees farming as a business, a way to hold onto his heritage and family land, and he has a reputation for trying new things with potential to increase his income. He sells organic tobacco to the Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company in Oxford; pasture raises hogs and chickens for local restaurants like Elaine’s; and grows organic produce. In July 2003, Gourmet magazine featured his collard greens in their annual produce issue, lauding them as some of the best in the country. This time of year, he’s popular for growing beautiful sweet potatoes–the well-known red Beauregards and the white O’Henrys– that are perfect for holiday pies.

Born in 1948, Hughes grew up on Pine Knot Farm and took root–he has never lived more than five miles away. He is the youngest of 12 children and the only one of his siblings to pursue a farming career. “My grandfather bought this land–125 acres–in 1912. At one time it supported three families: mine, my uncle’s and my aunt’s. Now it supports one.”

As a child, Hughes helped raise hogs, cows and chickens and grow a large vegetable garden. His father grew tobacco to pay the bills, while everything else from the farm fed his family. In 1975, Hughes started farming on his own, and for years he worked a 40-hour week while growing tobacco on the side.

In 1996 he began farming full time, growing organic tobacco and experimenting with organic vegetables. “I looked at the organic prices and thought the sweet potatoes matched what I could do,” he says. “You use the same equipment to plant them that you use to plant tobacco.” He grows organic collards, kale, broccoli, beans, cabbage and mustard greens as well, and although his willingness to farm without pesticides marks him as innovative to some, he sees it as nothing new.

“What we’re doing now is going back to the old ways,” he says, “a time when you grew your own stuff, before things got commercialized, before we got away from health and taste.”

Hughes now owns 75 acres, keeping 35 in cultivation at a time. He devotes nine of those acres to his sweet potatoes. “You can grow them anywhere, but if it’s not the right spot, they’ll turn out ugly. They would taste fine, but nobody would buy them.” With its warm climate, North Carolina is ideal for growing sweet potatoes–the state supplies 40 percent of the nation’s demand. The potatoes are easy to grow, drought tolerant and full of vitamins. Farmers see the crop as a good alternative to tobacco because the processors are here and the market is established.

Unlike the potato, which is a tuber, the sweet potato is a root, and it is notorious for not producing stable color. In horticultural circles, story has it that a Mississippi farmer named O’Henry started growing Beauregards in the late 1980s. His harvest yielded plenty of beautiful rose-colored potatoes as well as a surprise: white potatoes. A taste test proved they were still good to eat, so he propagated the seeds and sold them as O’Henrys.

“We believe that story because we’ve seen it happen here,” says Craig Yenchow, who leads the potato and sweet potato genetics program at N.C. State University. “The O’Henry is a specialty variety, but it is not an heirloom cultivar, it’s really a mutant of the Beauregard.”

Nevertheless, the O’Henrys taste just as good–only slightly less sweet than the Beauregards–and have a creamier texture. “People try them and fall in love,” Hughes says. “Some won’t eat any other variety.”

Next to tobacco, Hughes’ sweet potatoes are his biggest moneymaker. He grows eight acres of Beauregards–each yielding about 200 bushels–and one acre of O’Henrys. He plants them in early June, harvests them three months later, and sells them to Eastern Carolina Organics, local restaurants, and at the Durham and Carrboro farmers’ markets.

This fall’s harvest is late due to the dry conditions. “You just can’t control the weather,” he says, smiling. “This year it’s one thing, next year it’s something different. It’s the marketing that’s always a challenge. Sell it or smell it is what they say.”

Two years ago, Hughes began raising hogs and chickens, selling bacon, sausage and chickens to boost his market sales. The hogs live outside, and in addition to acorns, bugs and grass, they eat the produce that he doesn’t sell. “It’s a great way to get rid of the scraps,” he says. The chickens are pastured, too, and while their feed is not organic, it is antibiotic-free. At first, Hughes kept them penned and fed them organic grain, but his girlfriend told him the pastured chickens tasted better.

“When the hogs and chickens are on the ground you can taste it,” he says. “Being out there in nature makes a difference.”

It makes a difference for Hughes as well. Although it’s often 9 or 10 p.m. before he finishes the day and heads home, he prefers his vocation–with all its hard work and irregular hours–to an 8-to-5 job. “I’ve tried that, and I don’t like it,” he says.

When asked what keeps him going, he answers: “A love of farming. When spring comes, nothing feels better than tilling and smelling the fresh soil.”

Sweet potato pie, just in time for Thanksgiving
You can order homemade sweet potato pies directly from Hughes. His sister makes them just like their mother did. Hughes also sells holiday baskets filled with treats like sugar ham, pasture-raised chicken, sweet potatoes, winter squash and pecan, fruit or sweet potato pie. They come in different sizes, with names like “Here Comes the Boss,” “Impress the In-laws” and “Sunday Supper,” and will be available through the New Year. “It’s my idea for boosting sales while the market is closed,” Hughes says. Call him at 644-3276 to place an order.

You can also find pies made with Hughes’ sweet potatoes at both the Durham and Carrboro farmers’ markets. In Durham, Emma Gentry of Miss Emma’s Desserts makes sweet potato fried pies, as well as fruit pies and tarts. She uses both the Beauregards and the O’Henrys in her recipe.

The two sweet potato varieties are for sale at the Pine Knot Farms booth. A friend of Hughes’ sells the produce there, and when I bought an O’Henry, he leaned over and said, “Let me tell you something I learned growing up: When you’re making a sweet potato pie, use two red ones and two white ones. The white ones make it creamier.”

Miss Emma must be privy to the same secret. Her pie is just the right blend of sweet potato taste and creamy texture. “I also use nutmeg and rum flavoring, and I think that’s what brings people back,” she says.

Ruth Sampson and Louise Parrish each have a booth at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market. Sampson offers apple, pecan, chocolate, cherry, sweet potato and sweet potato pecan pies. She’s been buying sweet potatoes from Hughes since he joined the Carrboro market in 2000. “Stanley’s got some good-lookin’ potatoes,” she says. “And every time I order from him, he’s always on time. He’s also a very likeable person.”

Parrish appreciates Hughes’ potatoes for their size. “I like to buy the real big sweet potatoes, and Stanley grows ’em,” she says. Parrish uses her mother’s sweet potato pie recipe as well, which calls for Beauregards only and doesn’t include any spice.

“When people want spice in their pies, I send them to Ruth,” she says. “She does the same for me. We make the same stuff, but we try to do it a little different. We work together.” Parrish sells pound cakes, fruit pies and tarts as well as apple turnovers.

The Carrboro Farmers’ Market will be open on the Town Commons from 2 to 6 p.m. on Nov. 22, two days before Thanksgiving. Both women will make pies to order for the holiday, but orders should be placed before that Tuesday. Call Sampson at 942-6837; call Parrish at 929-7307.