Bulk sales still dominate in the sweet potato category, but bags are gaining steam, marketers say.

That’s no accident, thanks to microwave ovens.

“While the majority of the sweet potato volume are bulk sales, single-wrapped microwaveable sweet sales are growing as an increasing number of consumers are time-crunched,” said Jeff Scramlin, the Raleigh, N.C.,-based director of business development for sweet potatoes with Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.

Bagged product also answers needs of consumers who don’t know how to cook a sweet potato, Scramlin said.

“While still a limited number of SKUs (stock-keeping units) are out there, steamer bags are also growing, and again they respond to hectic lifestyles, and those looking for an easy way to prepare them,” he said.

That trend will continue, he said.

“As sweet potato sales continue to grow and gain consumer interest, I believe we’ll see increased packaging innovation in this category,” he said.

Three-pounders are the most popular bag at Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms, said Jimmy Burch, co-owner. 

“The bags keep growing for us. That’s what we’re getting the most growth on,” he said.

That growth is particularly noteworthy since it’s relatively recent, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. in Chadbourn, N.C.

“There has become more packaging on sweet potatoes in the last five years than the last 30 years,” he said.

Choice is the key to that sales growth, Wooten said.

“There’s a lot of consumer bags coming out, with 3- and 5-pound bags,” he said.

Burch said his company is heavily invested in a steamer bag program and has been for more than three years.

White potatoes found success with the concept, so the sweet potato industry followed suit, Wooten said.

“We saw people putting white potatoes in a steamer pack, and we were the first ones to put sweet potatoes in one. Now, there are four or five other suppliers doing it,” he said.

Bags fit in with the consumer preferences for convenience, said Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce Co.

“Trends in packaging continue to favor consumer-friendly options,” he said. 

Quick preparation times are central to the success of the steamer bags, Joyner said.

“With busy young parents, retirees and other consumers looking to spend less time in the kitchen but prepare the nutritious meals for their families, packaging that offers attractive, easily prepared options (is) becoming more prominent on shelves and in shopping carts,” he said.

With that in mind, Nash Produce developed its Mr. Yam product line, which includes packaging of tote bags, individual microwaveable potatoes and a 1½-pound steamable bag, Joyner said.

Three- to 5-pound bags are particularly big sellers during holiday seasons that bring increases in sweet potato consumption, said Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Farm Fresh Produce in Faison.

“For certain holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas, you’ll see a lot of sweet potato bags sold, and that’s really starting to pick up,” he said.

The spiking popularity of steamer bags is compelling, said Charlotte Vick, partner with Vick Family Farms in Wilson, N.C.

“The expense and the equipment have held us back, but we may look into it in the future,” she said.

Bags also offer preparation ideas with each package, and one bag product that has found success for Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc. is its 10-in-One, which comes in 3- and 5-pound sizes and offers consumers 10 ideas to prepare a sweet potato, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer.

“That’s beginning to be a very big item,” he said.

The company also has a steamer bag that “easily feeds a small family,” said Brenda Oglesby, sales manager.

“That’s a big trend, something people can use, because most families are working,” she said.