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Youth in Ag: Potatoes spell sweet success for ‘driven’ teen

Youth in Ag: Potatoes spell sweet success for ‘driven’ teen

Editor’s note: This is part of a series on kids under 18 making a difference or growing a business.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — The teen founder of Jill’s Sweet Potatoes has customers lining up for their taste of the fall veggie.

When Jill Uken planted 500 sweet potatoes — her biggest crop yet — she was hoping she might have mechanized help harvesting, but rainy weather didn’t allow that to happen.

Instead of trying a plow, the 17-year-old entrepreneur, with help from her parents and a few others, was limited to harvesting the crop with shovels in hand because the soil was too wet after repeated rains in October.

“It builds character, but it’s not as much fun,” Jill said.

Last year she planted 250 sweet potatoes.

“This year I doubled my crop,” said Jill, wearing a purple logoed T-shirt supporting her business.

She uses a plot of land at Clearview Farms in Champaign, which features regenerative farming of 27 different crops.

As a labor-saver this year, she irrigated the 50-foot rows of sweet potatoes with a drip line system served by big white tanks at the end of the row. By the end of the season, the sweet potato vines claimed the water tanks as a place to grow.

Jill’s Sweet Potatoes business is an FFA Supervised Agricultural Experience project.

“At the start of this school year, the officer team characterized her in one word, ‘driven,’” said Jennifer Wherley, the teen’s ag teacher and FFA advisor at Mahomet-Seymour Community Schools. “It shows a great deal about her character and ambition when not only adults but her peers recognize her relentless need to accomplish goals and her hard-working ambition.”

Some state fair-goers were introduced to the hard-working teen when she was a guest speaker on Kid’s Day.

Jill currently plans to study ag mechanics or ag business after high school graduation.

She is following in the steps of her older brothers, Nicholas and Tyler, who also grew sweet potatoes, but on a smaller scale. They got the idea from a friend of their dad’s, Bradley Uken, the manager of the Champaign County Farm Bureau.

While this is the fourth year growing the crop for the family, Jill’s sweet potato business has grown and is the largest yet.

Her mother Christine said they are still learning.

Last year, when Jill’s grandfather heard she was harvesting her crop by hand, “Oh, good golly” was his response. He knows people in Pittsfield, famous for antique tractors and equipment, and with their help came up with a plow she could use for harvest. It didn’t work out this year.

“We are still digging by hand between rain drops and selling opportunities,” Christine said at the end of October.

While rain was the culprit for a hectic harvest season this year, frost made harvesting the starchy edible root a challenge last year. The first frost came in the first week of October, creating a scramble to harvest quickly. This year, frost didn’t arrive until Nov. 1, but it followed weeks of mostly muddy weather.

While sweet potato harvest is hard labor, it’s a one-harvest crop, unlike green bean harvest which continues for weeks as different beans mature. That is part of the appeal, Christine said.

Fresh from a challenging harvest, Jill said she’s not sure how big her crop will be next year.

As far as Jill knows, this is the biggest sweet potato patch in Champaign County, as the crop is not common in east central Illinois.

The work doesn’t end at harvest for Jill. She takes the sweet potatoes home to Mahomet, cleans them and lets them sit for a week to mature as the starch turns to its sugary flavor. Then she bags them to be sold through her Instagram account.

”We have a following,” she said of last year’s customers and people who have heard about her from her appearance at the Illinois State Fair and other stories in the media.

She also sells sweet potatoes in person at Curtis Orchards in Champaign.

“Jill has such a great opportunity to experience, at such a young age, the trials and tribulations of starting and managing her own business,” said her FFA leader Wherley.

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Phyllis Coulter is Northern Illinois field editor, writing for Illinois Farmer Today, Iowa Farmer Today and Missouri Farmer Today.

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