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.
Those non-holiday weeks are seeing bigger movement, he said.
Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Faison-based Burch Farms, recently visited Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
He said he was surprised to see that all the restaurants his family visited featured sweet potatoes on their menus.
Burch said he was also pleased to be able to order sweet potato fries in an Idaho Falls restaurant during a visit to the russet potato state.
“You wouldn’t have seen that 10 years ago,” Burch said. “Now, they’re everywhere. People are eating more and more sweet potatoes even in areas that haven’t traditionally been sweet potato territory, like the Midwest and the Pacific Northwest. They’re expanding all over and every little corner of the U.S. and Canada has sweet potatoes.
Charlotte Vick, partner with Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C., said sweet potatoes are definitely enjoying demand that seems to grow each year.
“Demand has been very strong,” she said. “We have sold sweet potatoes for dog food treats, in steamer bags, mesh bags and in 40-pound boxes. They’re being used for such a variety of things now. In the last five years, sweet potatoes seem to be the hot vegetable.”
Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nash Produce Co., Nashville, N.C., said health interest helps fuel sales.
“It’s an alternate starch that’s actually good for people,” he said.
“It’s considered a super food and has the American Heart Association’s endorsement. People that didn’t know much about them continue to learn more about their health benefits. It’s always on the trending lists and is promoted well as a good product.”