In the U.S., per capita usage of sweet potatoes has grown steadily for the past six years, and grower-shippers say they expect the trend to continue in the foreseeable future.

Annual U.S. per-capita use of commercially produced fresh and processing sweet potatoes, which is used as a proxy for consumption, is forecast to reach 6.4 pounds for 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service reported in June.

In 2010, per capita usage was 6.3 pounds, a big jump over 2009’s 5.2 pounds and a significant increase over 2005’s 4.5 pounds.

Sales to both retail and foodservice sectors continue to increase, as do sales to the processing market and in overseas markets, said George Wooten, president and partner, Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C.

Mac Johnson, chief executive officer and president, Category Partners LLC, Denver, agreed.

For the 52-week period ending July 17, pounds of sweet potatoes purchased had increased by 1.7%, he said.

The Packer’s Fresh Trends 2011 reported that 44% of its sample of 1,009 U.S. households purchased sweet potatoes in the previous year.

Households earning more than $100,000 were more likely to have purchased them, with 59% saying they had done so.

Age of the primary shopper and geographical location might be factors in purchases.

Fifty-six percent of those 59 or older reported buying sweet potatoes. More than half of the households in the Northeast reported purchasing sweet potatoes, Fresh Trends reported.

The market for frozen sweet potato products is “skyrocketing,” Wooten said.

Fresh-cut sweet potatoes are taking longer to catch on, but Wayne E. Bailey and its foodservice division, George Foods, Pembroke, N.C., sell fresh-cut sweets to retail and foodservice.

Demand for sweet potatoes in the processing industry is growing, with companies marketing more cooked products containing sweet potatoes, Wooten said.

“The industrial market is growing faster than ever,” he said.

“The biggest increase is in the frozen and processed market.”

Growing demand for processed and frozen sweet potato products is good for the fresh market, Wooten said.

Having sweet potatoes available in various forms helps keep them in consumers’ minds, he said.

Even as U.S. consumers face tough economic times, the sweet potato industry has continued to grow, Wooten said.

More consumers may have replaced white potatoes with sweet potatoes in their diets.

Such a switch, he said, could be due to consumers’ recognition of sweet potatoes’ healthful and flavorful attributes, as well as the fact that they are priced similarly to white potatoes.

However, Johnson said he doesn’t think sweet potatoes affected white potato sales.

Sweet potatoes are another starch option that can add some excitement to a plate, he said.

Johnson said the recession might have helped sales of sweet potatoes because some consumers ate at home instead of dining out.

In 2011, sweet potato retail sales dollars rose by almost 1% and pounds sold at retail grew by about 2%, he said.

Jimmy Burch Sr., partner, Burch Farms, Faison, N.C., also said sweet potato sales are strong.

“We had the biggest crop in our lives last year and sold it all,” he said. “It was the largest crop in North Carolina history.”

Johnson said he’s found that many retailers promote sweet potatoes only at Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Instead, he encourages retailers to promote throughout the year.

Putting sweet potatoes on sale is one of the best ways to sell more sweet potatoes at retail, Wooten said.

Pricing them at 99 cents a pound works, but so does simply drawing attention to them with ads, Johnson said.

A price discount can increase sales by 5-10%, he said.

“It doesn’t need to be a deep discount,” Johnson said. “It’s just a reminder to put them on the plate.”

One successful promotion that Wada did in partnership with a retailer involved displaying 5-pound bags of Dole russet potatoes in a bin with 3-pound bags of Dole sweet potatoes, said Shane Watt, director of sweet potatoes for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group.

The promotion ran in April in many states and helped sell more sweets, Watt said.

Other ways to drive up sales include cross-promoting with marshmallows or with spices, such as ground cinnamon.

Some cross-promotions result in sales increases of 15%, Johnson said.