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Craig Yencho Earns 2024 O. Max Gardner Award

Craig Yencho speaks with a crop researcher in Africa

Craig Yencho, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor of Horticultural Science and program leader for NC State’s sweet potato breeding and genetics programs, has received the University of North Carolina System’s 2024 Oliver Max Gardner Award. 

Established by the will of former North Carolina Gov. O. Max Gardner, the award recognizes faculty who have “made the greatest contribution to the welfare of the human race.” The Gardner award is the highest honor the UNC System’s board of governors confers on faculty and is the only award for which all faculty members across the 17 campuses are eligible.

An internationally acclaimed plant breeder, Yencho has studied the sweet potato and improved its standing as a valuable crop that is resilient in adverse growing conditions. In 2005, Yencho introduced the Covington sweet potato to the world — a breakthrough variety known for its high yield, flavor, nutritional value and appearance. The Covington sweet potato now commands nearly 90% of North Carolina’s crop production and 20% of sweet potato crop acreage nationwide. Since its inception, the Covington has generated nearly $4 billion in farm gate revenue for North Carolina farmers, earning its place as one of the most impactful varieties ever introduced by NC State.

“Dr. Yencho’s work in sweet potato research not only helps drive economic prosperity for our state; it also helps fortify the health of populations across the globe,” said Chancellor Randy Woodson. “His research is a shining example of work that improves the world around us, and we congratulate him on this well-deserved, prestigious honor.”

Beyond his impact in North Carolina and the United States, Yencho is committed to enhancing the global welfare of humanity, especially in regions grappling with food insecurity and nutritional deficiencies. He has bred sweet potato varieties for tropical and subtropical conditions prevalent in developing nations and has directed cutting-edge research that helped elevate sweet potato crop standards in sub-Saharan Africa. This contributes significantly to economic stability and fortifies food security in the area, particularly for women. Estimates show that more than 10 million households have reaped the benefits of biofortified sweet potatoes over the past decade.

Last year, Yencho was selected as a fellow in the National Academy of Inventors, honored for  the societal and economic impact of his inventions. Yencho is the corecipient of more than 55 U.S. and international plant patents, and he has participated in the development and release of 45 sweet potato and potato varieties.

Yencho earned his B.S. in bioscience from Pennsylvania State University, his M.S. in entomology from Washington State University and his Ph.D. in entomology and a plant breeding minor from Cornell University. He served as a senior research fellow at El Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical in Colombia before coming to NC State in 1996. He was also a visiting scholar for the African Centre for Crop Improvement at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa, in 2010. 

This post was originally published in NC State News.

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