Processing demand is another rising star in the story of increasing sweet potato demand.
Grower-shippers say they’re selling more to processing customers to satisfy growing demand for frozen and other processed sweet potato products.
Up to 30% of North Carolina’s crop ships to processing channels.
That’s up from the 15% that serviced the segment a decade ago, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C.
“Our acreage is down this year but I see acreage continuing to increase every year overall for processing and retail,” Precythe said. “There’s huge demand and it should continue to grow as the processing business is growing by leaps and bounds.”
While canneries accounted for the majority of purchases 10 years ago, today, plants that produce fresh-frozen products for french fries is the segment that’s growing, he said.
Crinkle cut fry sales are booming and demand is expanding after large processors including McCain Foods and Con-Agra began offering sweet potato fries, Precythe said,
Processing customers also want the same high quality, he said.
While those that produce frozen product like the larger sizes for optimum yields, the canneries still prefer the small size potatoes, Precythe said.
Processing demand remains critical for growers and packers needing outlets for off-grade product, said Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nash Produce Co., Nashville, N.C.
“As time passes, I think demand will continue to increase,” he said. “Retailers are putting those processed products in the frozen foods sections. They’re very convenient for people to carry home and prepare. I only see an upward trend in consumption because of that.”
Demand by processing customers remains big for Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.
The Chadbourn, N.C.-based grower-shipper is seeing increasing interest.
Green Giant is among the fresh-cut processors increasing production, said George Wooten, president.
Demand for product to supply processing operations that produce frozen sweet potato products is also increasing, he said.
Wooten is a financial partner in Trinity Frozen Foods in Pembroke, N.C.
He said the plant began manufacturing frozen sweet potato fries in July.
“We are seeing opportunities worldwide for those kinds of products,” Wooten said. “They’re looking for something they can’t get where they are. It’s becoming worldwide.”
Wooten said processing demand remains important because it allows grower-shippers that service the fresh market to continue growing a reliably profitable product.
The segment also helps growers maintain competitive prices for the industry’s retail and foodservice customers, he said.
Vick Family Farms in Wilson, N.C., sells a small amount of its sweet potatoes to processing customers.
“As they typically get our off-grades, it’s made it possible for very little waste,” said Charlotte Vick, partner. “When you package sweet potatoes now, you pretty much sell everything. That’s good for the industry because you don’t have a lot of waste.”
Vick Farms sells about 5% of its crop to processing customers, a little higher than in the past, Vick said.