Local interest in North Carolina sweet potatoes varies

10/14/2013 04:16:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

North Carolina sweet potato growers have mixed experiences with the local produce craze.

Some say it’s growing while others say it hasn’t made that big of a change on the deal.

North Carolina sweet potatoesWada FarmsNorth Carolina sweet potato growers have mixed experiences with the local produce craze. Some say it’s growing while others say it hasn’t made that big of a change on the deal. Supermarkets enjoy promoting local, said Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Burch Farms, Faison, N.C.

“Local is a big deal in North Carolina,” he said. “All the major chains are really into it. The Wal-Mart’s, the Food Lion’s and the Harris-Teeter’s, they all support the local deal in big ways.”

Burch said the state’s agriculture department also strongly promotes its growers’ products as local.

Because the state can supply sweet potatoes throughout the year, the state’s residents don’t necessarily view the vegetable as “local,” said Jeff Scramlin, the Raleigh, N.C.-based director of business development — sweet potatoes for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

“You don’t see a big push for local locally,” Scramlin said. “Where we see success in promoting local is on seasonal items. When they’re in, they’re local while sweet potatoes are always here. Sweet potatoes aren’t like broccoli or cabbage that will only be here twice a year for a few weeks at a time.”

Because of its limited production, North Carolina red potatoes are another item that does well and enjoys more local interest than sweet potatoes, Scramlin said.

Retailers like to help consumers learn more about where produce is grown, said Charlotte Vick, partner with Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C.

“Consumers like to make that connection as to where their produce is grown,” she said. “When they make that connection, they feel like it’s local produce. Consumers like the stories they see about farm grown on the packaging. If they can’t buy from a pick-your-own, if they can make the connection of where the product comes from, they feel a connection to it as if it was local or regionally grown.”

Charlotte VickVickThe definition of local isn’t a certainty, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C.

“I see it and hear it, but it’s not really been that big with us,” he said. “What does the word local mean anyway? A state touching a state? If I have a business in that state, it’s local. We’re trying to get in place to be available when needed.”

Wooten said he sees interest in local becoming bigger than organic.

Local demand remains consistent, said Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nash Produce Co., Nashville, N.C.

“Nationwide, there is a demand for local,” he said. “But sweet potatoes are grown regionally. We promote them as local grown when we can but they’re certainly a year-round produce now.”

Local or not, the industry is seeing strong interest in North Carolina sweet potatoes, said Brenda Oglesby, sales manager for Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison.

As chairwoman of the Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission’s promotions committee, Oglesby has promoted the crop to retailers throughout the U.S. and Europe.



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