Yencho Honored for Development of Covington Sweetpotato

Dr. Craig Yencho is an NC State University professor whose research has influenced sweet potato cultivation across the world. He’s now been named the recipient of the 2024 Oliver Max Gardner Award, which recognizes faculty who have made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race in 2005 Yencho introduced the Covington sweet potato, a breakthrough variety known for its high yield, flavor, nutritional value and appearance. He spoke with WPTF’s Chris Edwards.

“My department head, a fellow by name of Dr. Tom Monaco, asked me if I’d be interested in managing the sweet potato program too. I had exposure to the crop, but very little, and I like a challenge. There’s some features between sweet potato and potato that kind of overlap, and some techniques that we use, they’re both an example of what we call a colony propagated crop. They’re vegetatively propagated, so they’re breeding similarities. So it kind of made sense and, and I said, Yes, and it’s been just really rewarding job. So it’s, it wasn’t, it wasn’t like a planned change. I mean, for many, you’re probably familiar with, the old saying, you know, when opportunity knock, don’t be afraid to walk through the door. And I think that was a case in my point opportunity knocked. It kind of set myself up.”

Yencho says receiving the Gardner award was not something he envisioned.

“I never would have thought this when I started my career some 26 years ago here at NC State. It’s just a testimony to the not only to sort of the work here that we do at NC State as a whole and in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, but it’s really a testimony more to the whole industry and to the partnerships that we’ve developed over the years.”

The Covington now commands 90% of North Carolina’s sweet potato production and 80% of the US market. Yencho says it was a team effort.

“It’s really the team and all the collaborations that I that I’ve had over the years, both here at home in North Carolina, across the southeast, where sweet potatoes are really important across the states, and then globally, I’ve had the opportunity to train a lot of students who have gone back to their countries, particularly in Sub Saharan Africa, where sweet potatoes a major food staple, and to contribute. So it’s just a recognized recognition, I guess of of you know, just building those teams, collaborating, and it’s really not so much about me, but it’s really about the crop, and it’s about the good work that all the folks who work in that area have been able to contribute.”

Image: Craig Yencho and Mercy Kitavi work with sweet potato samples in a lab in Nairobi, Kenya. Image courtesy NC State University College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.