Five years ago, processed sweet potatoes weren’t a major part of the business. Nowadays, sweet potatoes are everywhere and in everything – especially in fry form.
“It’s helping it, definitely,” said Jimmy Burch, owner of Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms. “People get in the habit of eating them more often.”
Burch Farms added a new sizer for its operations to accommodate more processing demand. Burch estimated 35% of the total volume of sweet potatoes will go to processors.
“Five years ago it was 2-3%,” he said.
Sweet potato grower-shippers never really had a viable processing market, said George Wooten, president and owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce.
Wooten remembers a market study he commissioned in 1991 that analyzed potato usage in a certain retailer. White potatoes were utilized 42 different ways in the store while sweet potatoes were utilized in only four.
Wooten said he revisited the same store to see how sweet potatoes are used now and found at least 32.
“There were even multiple uses in the fresh market where before there was only the one way,” he said. “Now we have the bulk, microwaveable, fresh-cut and steamers.”
More business to processors means more demand from consumers, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission, Smithfield.
“We’ve noticed an increase in fresh market shipments,” she said. “What we think is happening is that consumers are trying sweet potato fries in restaurants and want to duplicate those efforts at home.”
Fries and other processing volumes also help retailers get a more consistent size and look for their displays.
Jerome Vick, co-owner of Vick Family Farms, Faison, N.C., said french fries are a good destination for ugly potatoes.
“It’s helping a lot because the sizes that were not so popular can be utilized in the french fry business,” he said. “Once upon a time we used to have some difficulty with the jumbos. They were a long item on the floor. Those are very popular for the french fries.”
Sweet potato fries also help the vegetable reach younger audiences.
“Young people love french fries,” he said. “Young people will include them in their meals where they otherwise wouldn’t.”