Organics and specialty varieties offer important sweet potato options for buyers, as well as end users, suppliers say.

The growing prominence of organics is noteworthy because more retailers than ever are looking to the category as a matter of course, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

"A lot of your retailers have an organic to offer, as well as the conventional, and it"s pretty much year-round because North Carolina production is year-round," Johnson-Langdon said.

That"s good for business at Durham, N.C.-based distributor Eastern Carolina Organics, said Trace Ramsey, project and production manager.

"Retailers are looking for organic component," Ramsey said.

Ramsey noted that his company deals primarily with retailers that emphasize organics.

"But there are other chains getting into organic lines because their customers are looking for it," he said.

Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms grows organic sweet potatoes on 450 acres, said Jimmy Burch, owner.

"For us, it"s stable," he said.

However, Burch Farms" organic product doesn"t go to retail, he said.

"Just processing," he said. "The baby food part of it is stable. The french fry part is growing."

Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., has answered the call for organics and will be growing organic sweet potatoes for the first time this year, said Brenda Oglesby, marketing director.

Jason Tucker, vice president of the Livingston-based California Sweetpotato Council, said demand for organics has increased steadily in California, although organic acreage still represents only a small portion of overall production. 

Specialty sweet potato varieties are finding followings, as well, Tucker said.

"Some new red and white varieties have hit the market this season and we are hearing about positive response from the consumers," he said. "One new Garnet-type variety, the Bellevue, has a high sucrose content with a red/rose-color skin," he said. "Because of the higher sucrose content, the taste is very good when slow cooked."

Livingston, Calif.-based Yagi Bros. Produce Inc. focuses heavily on offering year-round supplies of Asian sweet potato varieties, said Duane Hutton, manager.

"Year-to-date sales have been very good, and prices have been very good," he said.

Hutton said consumers will pay a price premium for the Asian varieties, and "roughly half" of the product goes to markets on the U.S. West Coast.