There’s no question that sweet potato sales have taken off.
U.S. per capita consumption in 2011 was 6.9 pounds compared with 3.8 pounds in 2002, says Charles Walker, executive director of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, Columbia, S.C.
This year’s crop is expected to hit 2.7 billion pounds.
click image to zoomPamela RiemenschneiderRetailers say they’ve noticed a significant uptick in sales, even during the “off-season,” largely because of increased publicity about the health benefits of the tubers.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has labeled the sweet potato as the No. 1 most nutritious vegetable, calling it a “nutritional All-Star.”
Matter of choice
Retailers have responded to sweet potatoes’ growing popularity by offering choices of bulk or bagged product, merchandising unique varieties, selling individually wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes and, in some cases, by offering processed product, such as cubed sweet potatoes.
A couple of new varieties are on the horizon.
The Orleans has the same yields as traditional sweet potatoes, but it offers more No. 1 grade product because it has more consistent size and shape, says Matt Garber, partner in Garber Farms, Iota, La.
“It looks a little cleaner on the shelf,” he says.
Supplies will be limited mostly to Louisiana growers this year, but it should be available industrywide next year, as more seed becomes available.
Also arriving on the scene is the 07-146 variety licensed by ConAgra Foods. It has red skin, good sugar content and is said to be a good potato for fries.
Offering specialty varieties is one way to boost sales. And if you’re looking for specialties, look to California.
“California is unique,” says Scott Stoddard, farm adviser for the University of California Cooperative Extension and secretary of the Livingston-based Sweet Potato Council of California.
About 90% of the sweet potatoes produced in other states are the traditional orange-flesh kind, like the beauregard, covington and evangeline, he says.
Besides the more common varieties, California grows red yams, which have an orange flesh and reddish/burgundy skin; sweets (sometimes called Jersey sweets), which have a dry, yellow flesh; and Oriental or Japanese sweet potatoes, which typically have a purple skin and white flesh.
“Our red yam market is probably our biggest market,” Stoddard says. They account for up to 50% of the sweet potatoes the state grows. About 25% are the standard variety, 15% are sweets and 15% are Japanese.