The majority of sweet potatoes grown in North Carolina are of the covington variety, said George Wooten Jr., owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.
“North Carolina is still sticking with the covington, which has served us very well,” he said, mentioning that while other varieties are constantly in research and development, nothing better has been released yet.
In Mississippi, Benny Graves, executive director of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council said he has seen more interest in the orleans variety.
“It’s an orange flesh variety that’s doing really well,” Graves said.
“The orleans variety brings consistent shape and sizing,” he said.
In contrast, Graves said the beauregard variety seems to be down a little.
“It’s still the main one, but perhaps declining a little bit,” he said.
Glen Reynolds, national director of produce sales, Black Gold Farms, Grand Forks, N.D., agreed the orleans variety will be more widely available this year.
Another new option is Bayou Belle.
“Bayou Belle is new varieties for the fresh market in 2014. Its skin color is more red than beauregard, but still has the orange flesh customers will expect. Bayou Belle’s unique characteristic is that it has a higher sugar content making it a ‘sweeter’ sweet potato,” Reynolds said.
Outside of the main variety, Wooten said niche varieties are still important.
“Those niche markets are growing. At one time, no one wanted purple sweet potatoes, but now they have a nice little market is some places. Asian varieties are also growing. There’s decent market share there, but it’s a niche-type item,” he said.
Less than 10% of sweet potatoes grown fall into that category, Wooten estimated.
Matthews Ridgeview Farms, Wynne, Ark., is growing a bonita sweet potato which is a white-flesh sweet potato.
“This will be our third year and we are definitely seeing more interest in this variety this year and other varieties that we have not experimented with,” said Kim Matthews, co-owner.
She said these special varieties add to the industry.
“New varieties bring flexibility to the industry and that’s always good,” she said.
Other companies are also involved in more specialty sweet potatoes.
“We have been working on the new color varieties to appeal to new consumers,” said Trey Boyette, sales, SMP Southeast, Vardaman, Miss.
“Secondary varieties allow us to service certain ethnic markets, as well as to aid chef’s wanting flavor and color options for plate presentations,” said Jeff Scramlin, director of business development of the Raleigh, N.C. office of Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.
He says that despite consumer trends, many varieties exist even though they aren’t all commercially grown.
“While orange-fleshed sweet potatoes lead in consumption, the reality is they represent only a very small percentage of the overall sweet potato category,” Scramlin said.
Organic production is also only around 5% of production, but interest is growing in the southern states.
“California has historically been the largest organic producer, but with the cost of fuel, it has opened up some opportunities for East Coast growers to participate in the organic sweet potato market,” Wooten said.