Sweet potatoes are a marketer’s dream commodity because, as with blueberries and strawberries, demand keeps increasing despite harsh economic times.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported per-capita U.S. sweet potato consumption at 6.3 pounds in 2010, the latest year available.
That’s up from 5.2 pounds in 2009 and 4.2 pounds in 2000, and similar to the 5 pounds Americans consumed through most of the 1970s.
Grower-shippers say increasing demand is almost a case of the sky being the limit.
“Per-capita consumption is up and it is increasing every year,” said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C. “Everybody is trying to eat healthy. People have learned more about the health benefits of sweet potatoes. You go into four- and five-star restaurants and you will see how those chefs love them. There are so many ways to prepare them. Every segment is growing, including processing. I don’t see any end to it. It will continue to grow.”
From the 1930s through the 1960s, sweet potatoes were viewed as kind of a poor man’s food, Precythe said.
That’s not the case anymore and more consumers are placing sweet potatoes in their shopping carts, many times paying a price premium for them.
Shoppers’ increasing concerns about health is helping buoy demand, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C.
“Per-capita consumption has been going up a half a pound each year,” he said. “We have a bright future. As far as what we see, it’s one of the brightest vegetables out there. It’s also one of the most versatile vegetables. Now we have a great opportunity to let everyone see and taste them.”
Jeff Scramlin, the Raleigh, N.C.-based director of business development for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho, said the 6.3 pounds U.S. consumers eat on average a year is good news for the industry.
“I don’t think we’ve seen the peak yet,” he said. “As long as we keep promoting the health benefits, we will do well as everyone is interested in health.”
Scramlin said he’s not sure if the industry will experience more demand but said it should see a leveling of demand during certain times of the year.
Two decades ago, the peaks growers experienced in holiday periods were a lot higher peaks than they experience today, he said.
That’s not saying the industry is selling fewer potatoes during the holidays, but the statistics show it is selling more during the non-holiday periods, Scramlin said.