Boxes dominate shipments of sweet potatoes

01/04/2013 12:37:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

NASHVILLE, N.C. — While North Carolina sweet potatoes ship in a variety of bags, packers send a majority of their product to customers in standard 40-pound cartons.

Daniel Bissett, president of Spring Hope-based Bissett Produce Co. Inc., said he sells many bagged sweet potatoes, but the bags are in higher demand during the Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter holidays.

He said he hasn’t seen strong demand for bags in the U.S. or for shrink-wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes.

Similar to the white potato industry, Bissett said the sweet potato industry is moving to counts.

“It’s not electronic sizers that are driving the business,” he said. “In reality, it’s the customers driving the business. The wholesale trade has become such a large part of the business even for people that are wholesalers on the street whether in Philadelphia, Boston or New York. Their customers are looking for plate fillers and looking for certain counts.”

To save on cost, a casual steakhouse may request smaller-sized sweet potatoes while a more upscale steakhouse will specify 50-count boxes of premium-sized sweet potatoes, Bissett said.

Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nash Produce Co., agrees bagged sales remain a bit of a niche market but said it’s experiencing growing sales.

Nash Produce installed its first bagging machinery last fall.

“There are not a lot of sweet potatoes sold in bags,” Joyner said. “But some of the customers who are utilizing bagging are having some good success. We’ve seen a general increase (in sales) over that period of time.”

Nash installed two additional bagging machines in April and packs small and medium-sized potatoes in 3- and 5-pound bags.

Joyner said he sees bagged demand increasing and said Nash is trying to market more sweet potatoes in bags.

Most shippers pack in 1-, 2-, 3- and 5-pound bags.

In an attempt to increase year-round demand, Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, this season rolled out new 3- and 5-pound “10 in 1” bags.

The mesh bags display 10 ways consumers can prepare sweet potatoes.

“We’ve marketed bags a long time, but there has been a hard process to get all the chains to put them (the bags) on year-round,” said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer. “Typically, they’re big movers during Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter. With these ‘10 in 1’ bags, we feel this will head us in the right direction to get them to go year-round with bags.”

Precythe said some retailers carry bagged sweet potatoes throughout the year.

Brenda Oglesby, sales manager, said value-added offerings — including shrink-wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes — see strong sales.

“The demand is good,” she said. “It’s something I wouldn’t have dreamed would have taken hold as strongly as it has.”

Vick Family Farms, Wilson, ships 40-pound cartons but is exploring adding bags.

Charlotte Vick-Ferrell, partner, said the company plans to install bagging machinery next spring to pack 3- and 5-pound mesh bags.

The grower-shipper has long marketed shrink-wrapped microwaveable sweet potatoes.

Vick-Ferrell called shrink-wrapped demand consistent.

“It’s not an excellent business, but it is steady,” she said. “We want to pick up sales on that more.”

Strong varieties help with retail presentation, said Jimmy Burch Jr., salesman for Burch Farms, Faison.

Burch said the covington variety possesses a blocky shape, tighter skins and higher sugar levels that help it store better than other varieties.

“Our customers seem to like it over the beauregard,” Burch said. “It looks better on the shelf. Instead of being long and crooked, it’s more like an Idaho baker in size with uniform shape and shelf appearance.”



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