Yacons testing well in N.J., get push from Extension
ATLANTIC CITY, N.J. — Morris County Ag Extension Agent Peter Nitzsche talked to a small crowd of farmers at the New Jersey Ag Convention recently about the rewards and challenges involved in a new niche crop that has tested well in the Garden State.
The yacon, pronounced yay-con, is a type of perennial daisy and root vegetable herb that is native to the Andes in South America.
They have been grown successfully in somewhat warmer climates including Australia and the Philippines for years.
More recently, they have been grown successfully in New Jersey at the Rutgers Snyder Research Farm in Pittstown.
The vegetables don’t taste like turnips or rutabagas, but rather their taste has been described as a cross between apples, watermelon, celery and a hint of pear.
They look like sweet potatoes and their texture can be quite crisp.
Yacons can be harvested right up until the very end of the fall growing season, Nitzsche pointed out, and they discovered the plants can take a light frost quite well.
Digging them out of the ground can be labor-intensive, he cautioned, but at Snyder Farm they used some available machinery to till up the soil to scoop them up more easily.
Nitzche has been experimenting with growing yacons at Snyder Farm for multiple years, but like all Garden State county Ag Extension agents, his time and resources are stretched quite thin.
“Moving into 2017 and 2018 I had every intention of buying peat moss and vermiculite and a number of fertilizers, but never really got to it, so I put them in some bins to hold in the humidity and that seemed to work fine to maintain their moisture for a while,” Nitzsche said.
“This year we gave some pieces to four different growers, a couple from central and a couple from northern New Jersey,” he said.
Nitzsche showed slides of plants at Snyder Farm that were four and five feet tall.
He and his team used simple hedge trimmers to get down to the base of the plants and the vegetable buried in the soil.
They were also tested in sandier soil in southern New Jersey at the Rutgers-affiliated RAREC facility in Bridgeton.
Despite the raw, rainy spring of 2018, they grew well at Snyder Farm.
“The tubers are fairly soft and can break fairly easily, so you don’t want to handle them too hard,” he cautioned, “over the last two years at Snyder Farm we had anywhere from two to seven pounds per variety per plant there.”
As with any new crop, one soon learns what kind of insect pests can attack healthy plants.
“The first year we planted we saw almost no pests, but (in 2018) we saw a couple of worms and things in there, but they really were kind of minor. Hopefully there won’t be any new pests that become too problematic in raising this crop.”
With all the rain this year there was also some bacterial disease, but by and large, Nitzsche’s team of growers at Snyder Farm enjoyed healthy yields.
Working with chef Ian Keith at the Harvest Café on the Cook College campus in New Brunswick, they investigated various methods of preparing yacon.
Nitzsche said Keith tested out some recipes and held tastings with kitchen staffers, “and he used them in salads and smoothies and in some syrups and on desserts.”
The yacon is a good crop for farmers who do winter indoor farmers markets or have access to refrigeration to sell the vegetable through the fall and winter months.
“They can offer up something different, aside from carrots, potatoes and winter squash,” Nitzsche said, “and for growers who have winter CSA’s it’s a chance to put something different in your basket.”
Nitszche said he checked with one of his farmers that goes into New York City about yakons.
“I asked him if he was getting a lot of business from people from Peru, and he said he mentioned it to a couple of people who were from Peru who said they’d never eaten them.”
Nitzsche said he has some lingering concerns about the nutritional values and health aspects of yacon, so they’re all working closely with the chef at Harvest Café to do more tastings and trying out different ways to prepare this sweet potato-like crop.
“We are looking for some growers to plant some yacon on their farms and we want to test it out throughout the rest of the state and see how it grows,” he said.
Yacons, technically an herb, can be harvested most years in New Jersey through the end of November or for several weeks after a frost.
Farmers and backyard vegetable growers are welcome to e-mail Nitzsch to inquire about getting some cultivars at: email@example.com.
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