Sweet potato grower-shippers continue to see strong demand for their product but even greater volume to meet that demand.
Companies reported good quality and volume from the 2017 crop, and interest from retail and foodservice has been on the upswing.
“As more people are looking at healthy options, they also want good food, things that taste good,” said Jeff Thomas, director of marketing for Lucama, N.C.-based Scott Farms. “Sweet potato really fits the mold for both.”
The vegetable might not draw as much attention as kale or cauliflower, but it has certainly gained status recently.
“The demand for sweet potatoes continues to rise year after year,” said Will Kornegay, senior vice president of sales and business development for Snow Hill, N.C.-based Ham Farms. “(The sweet potato) is definitely a superfood, but it’s not a trendy superfood — I think people have sweet potatoes in their regular lineup for the long haul.”
As the popularity of the vegetable has risen, so has the amount of competition in the industry, and prices reflect it.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported f.o.b. prices of $12-16 for a 40-pound carton of orange sweet potatoes from eastern North Carolina Feb. 26.
Last year around the same time prices were $14-16, down from mostly $16-17 in 2016 and $16-18 in 2015.
“I think it’s fair to say that as consumption and demand increase, sweet potatoes become a very popular thing to farm, a popular commodity to farm, so I think that making sure that the supply and demand stay in a favorable position ... could be a challenge,” Kornegay said.
U.S. growers harvested 159,300 acres of sweet potatoes in 2017, down from 163,300 acres the previous year. From 2010-14, that number had hovered mostly between 115,000 and 130,000 acres, so the jump in recent years has been a significant one.
Industry members noted that acreage in North Carolina — the leading producer of sweet potatoes — could decrease given how low prices have been.
“The question is whether the farmer has decided if he wants to plant again this year due to what he made last year,” said Tami Long, director of marketing and business development for Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce.
Growing segments for the sweet potato business include value-added, organic and varieties like murasaki that are newer to the market.
Opening the eyes of shoppers to different ways to use the vegetable is a priority for grower-shippers.
“We’re seeing that consumers want something easy, they want convenient, and so one of the things I’m trying to do is educate them more on sweet potatoes,” Long said. “People just think of the sweet potato as a casserole or a bake.”
Thomas also said education is a key opportunity for the industry.
“We have the ability to educate everyone — the retailer, the restaurant, the foodservice supplier, the hotel distributor, the consumer, everyone — on all the uses and the benefits of sweet potatoes, and I think by educating we have an opportunity to actually expand the use of the product and make it a household staple for most all homes,” Thomas said. “There’s very few negatives, if any, to the sweet potato.”
Along those lines, companies are excited to see exposure to sweet potatoes growing thanks to increased use of the vegetable in foodservice.
“You can be so creative with a sweet potato,” said Kelley Precythe, president of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors. “The chefs, they’re adding it to salads, obviously they go well with steaks, they look nice on plates, and chefs can do so many things with them.”
Kornegay said sweet potatoes have become much more prevalent on menus in recent years, including internationally.
“It’s really either introducing (consumers) to sweet potatoes or it’s just increasing their perception of not only the flavor and the taste but the health benefits that come along with it,” Kornegay said. “So as more consumption happens in those type of establishments, they naturally want to buy them more for themselves on the retail level.”