The value-added segment is growing across the U.S., and southern growers say the category is helping to introduce fresh product to new consumers.

One of the most popular value-added options gives consumers a more convenient way to microwave their sweet potatoes, said Jeff Scramlin, director of business development of the Raleigh, N.C. office of Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.

“The single serve microwavable sweets, like the ones we offer, have been around for a while, but their popularity is growing, and mostly because they are quick and easy to prepare. We’re also seeing some steamable bags of sweet potatoes,” Scramlin said.

Microwave bags are popular.

The 1.5-pound microwave bag released by Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., last year has seen strong demand.

“It’s a small bag with five sweet potatoes that are triple-washed. It’s popular with women on the go who are trying to feed a family,” said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer.

The package also features 10 ways to cook sweet potatoes.

“We try to continually create new ways to market the product,” Precythe said.

All in all, consumers seem to respond well to anything that allows them to cook sweet potatoes faster and easier.

“It’s a really positive trend, and gives us access to segments of the market we didn’t normally supply before,” said Benny Graves, executive director of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.

Graves said single shoppers looking for a quick meal solution are the ideal new sweet potato customers for the microwaveable packs.

“It fits right into their lifestyle,” he said.

Moreover, Graves believes the growth of the value-added category isn’t stealing business from the bulk sales that support the industry.

“These products help reach new customers. It doesn’t take away from the loose bin sales,” he said.

Glen Reynolds, national director of produce sales, Black Gold Farms, Grand Forks, N.D., said a lot of work is being done by the packaging industry to add convenience for the consumer.

“Some of the latest packaging options being presented allow the consumer to buy fresh product in bulk, store at home and add their own seasoning or ingredients to the sweet potatoes. Some of the newer packaging offers microwave or grilling options with your own recipe,” Reynolds said.

On the fresh-cut product side, growth is more limited to foodservice, and even there, demand isn’t seeing the same growth as on the value-added packaging side.

“The fresh cut market is still viable but is not trending as strong as the value added. Maybe more so for foodservice as fresh cut requires less labor but not for retail as yet,” Johnson-Langdon said.

Shippers say there is room for more expansion in the value-added category in order to stay relevant in a world that values convenience more and more.

“The overall industry has to take some risks and really start to think outside of the box to keep consumers interested,” said Leah Brakke, marketing director of Black Gold Farms.