Perspectives Online

Carson Barnes creates Covington Endowment to support sweet potato research

Dean Johnny Wynne (right) thanks Carson Barnes, the nation’s largest grower of sweet potatoes, for his support of College research programs.
Photo by Daniel Kim

The Henry M. Covington Endowment for Excellence in Sweet Potato Variety Development was established in August in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. The fund, named in memory of Covington, who was an Extension specialist in CALS’ Department of Horticultural Science, will support development of new sweet potato varieties in the state. Carson B. Barnes of Nash County, owner of Barnes Farming Corp., created the endowment in honor of Covington’s guidance in the development of the Barnes family operation, the nation’s largest grower of sweet potatoes.

Dr. Johnny Wynne, CALS dean, hosted the endowment signing at the Dorothy and Roy Park Alumni Center on the N.C. State Centennial Campus. “A special thanks to Carson Barnes for making this evening possible,” Wynne said. “We’re proud of our College’s sweet potato research and extension program, the advances they have made and the support they provide to the industry. And we’re proud of the innovative and entrepreneurial farmers who have made North Carolina No. 1 in sweet potato production. Carson, you have set the standard for all of us in so many ways. The creation of this endowment sets another standard in providing support for the development of new varieties that will keep North Carolina in the forefront of this industry.”

In response, Barnes spoke of his mentor, Covington. “He was the most stubborn person I ever knew,” said Barnes. “After he retired [from N.C. State] and came to work with us, he would be at work before I came in and after I left. He was a family friend, a loyal friend, an intelligent friend.”

Called North Carolina’s “Mr. Sweet Potato,” Covington was responsible for much of the growth and success of the sweet potato industry in the state, according to the CALS Office of Advancement. Covington, who held degrees from Clemson and Louisiana State universities, came to N.C. State in 1948 as Extension specialist working with sweet potatoes and 17 other vegetable crops, as well as some fruit crops. He motivated the state’s sweet potato growers by establishing the “300 Bushel Sweet Potato Club” in 1959 and was instrumental in establishing the N.C. Yam Commission Inc. and, in 1961, the U.S. Sweet Potato Council. After his retirement from NCSU in 1974, he remained active as a consultant to Barnes until his passing in 2004.

“In essence, Covington is still working for the industry,” said Dr. Craig Yencho, CALS associate professor of horticultural science, sweet potato and potato breeding and genetics. “The [sweet potato] breeding program’s most recent table stock release, ‘Covington,’ was named in honor of Henry and now accounts for roughly 65 percent of North Carolina acres.”

Barnes Farming Corp., incorporated in 1976, now covers more than 11,000 acres, with more than 3,000 acres devoted to sweet potatoes. Throughout his farming career, Barnes always sought help from NCSU and the Cooperative Extension Service. In 1973, with the help of the College’s Covington and Lee Kushman, he built the first modern sweet potato curing room and, later, the first water dump for a sweet potato packing line.

To recognize Covington’s work and his many contributions to the sweet potato industry, earlier in 2007 Barnes joined the N.C. Sweet Potato Commission Inc. in support of the Henry M. Covington Endowment for Excellence in Sweet Potato Research and Extension. That endowment will be augmented by income from the new endowment Barnes created in August.

Said Dr. Tom Monaco, CALS coordinator of commodity relations and former head of the Horticultural Science Department, “We are all very appreciative of Carson Barnes’ generosity and foresight to establish this endowment to support variety development. His vision for securing the future of the sweet potato industry will, hopefully, be recognized by other members of the industry through their contributions to the Covington endowments.”

—Terri Leith