Organic sweet potatoes are still on the rise, according to Sandi Kronick, chief executive officer of Eastern Carolina Organics, Pittsboro, N.C.
Sweet potatoes are a large portion of her company’s business, making up 12% of sales last year.
"And last year was a down year for us because of the late crop. We missed a lot of the Thanksgiving merchandising," she said.
Prices are lower than in previous years because of the recession.
"The recession caused prices to stabilize, but we still have a comfortable price for producers," she said.
However, Kronick said lower prices aren’t necessarily a negative.
"Organic sweet potatoes are a lot more accessible now, and the price ceiling brought on by the recession has helped bring more shoppers into organics.
The availability of new varieties also adds to the industry’s growth.
Garnets were tested organically in the Carolinas and did very well, so Kronick expects to see some excitement as the new variety hits markets this year.
Kronick is optimistic about offering consumers more diversity because until now the beauregard has been the most widely produced organic option.
"This will give us access to some that were typically seen as being only West Coast varieties," she said.
Processed products make up a large portion of the organic sweet potato market.
A lot of the crop goes into baby food, which is good, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributions Inc., Faison, N.C.
"With the economy like it is, the demand for fresh organics is not as great as it was. Most of the organics are being grown for processors for baby food," Precythe said.
Conversely, Kronick doesn’t see the processed demand as a threat to fresh sales. Processing had heavy volume before the retail fresh market developed, she said.
"I don’t think there’s any negative impact. The more organic acreage, the better. It’s an exciting thing," she said.
Kronick said organics will continue to increase in demand because a lot of larger volume producers offer an organic line as well.
"I think that more large-scale buyers are starting to offer organics, and I still expect that to increase. They know it’s a smaller market, but it’s a way to supplement their offerings," she says.
She says that sweet potatoes are an easier item to grow organically than other options.
"You don’t need a market for your entire crop in one week. You just need solid professional storage. That makes it a great crop because it can bring so many growers to organic," she said.
George Wooten, owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C. says organics certainly make up the largest portion on any niche market, though his company is not offering any organic sweet potatoes.
"There’s a market there, but we’re not currently doing much there. We have in the past, but we’re not right now." he said.
"We’ve seen a steady incline in the demand for organic. It’s not the biggest side of our business, but we’ll continue to have it grow," Laura Kornegay said, marketing director for Nash Produce, Nashville, N.C.
Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Farm Fresh Produce, says the export market for organic sweet potatoes also is growing.
"It’s starting to become popular in Europe, even more so than in the U.S. We need to plan for and go stronger for organic exports," Ceccarelli said.