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Sweet potatoes up despite early losses

by Christina DiMartino | January 13, 2010
A crop report issued Jan. 12 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that this season's nationwide sweet potato crop is one of the larger since 1932. The increase comes despite volume declines, some of which were huge, caused by heavy rains during the harvesting season in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama.

"California and North Carolina came through with large volumes, which compensated for the losses in the southern states," Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, headquartered in Columbia, SC, told The Produce News. "This year's crop is reported to be 1.96 billion pounds, which is one of the largest in decades. There is definitely an upward trend in volume in the past eight years, and that indicates an increase in demand."

In 2002, U.S. growers produced 1.28 billion pounds of sweet potatoes, and since then increases have continued every year except one.

Mr. Walker noted that Louisiana's 2009 crop is larger than 2008's, but the figures are an aberration because the 2008 crop was much smaller than normal due to hurricane damage. When compared to the more normal year of 2007, the state is down by nearly half for 2009.

Meanwhile, Mississippi is down by nearly 75 percent this year. Benny Graves, executive secretary and treasurer of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council in Mississippi State, MS, said, "We are not a player in this year's market due to the big losses growers here suffered. North Carolina and California are filling orders, but we hear that processing is tight. Shortages, if any this year, will show up around Easter."

The shortage in some states is bad news in what is a good news year for sweet potato demand. The product is enjoying the benefits of strong media attention and aggressive promotion by sweet potato organizations during the past decade.

In December, Mintel, a globally recognized market analyst, issued its "Mintel Predicts 2010's Trendy Flavors" report, which ranked sweet potatoes as one of the top two items expected to lead the list of trendy flavors.

The report stated that sweet potatoes will become "the new functional food" because of the high fiber, beta carotene, vitamins C and B6 content and preparation versatility. Growers in states that have increases this year are benefiting from the strong demand.

"Monitoring for a new season begins when the new crop starts shipping," George Wooten, owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. in Chadbourn, NC, told The Produce News. "Our 2010 crop sales are 43 percent up from 2009. Movement for the same time period in 2008 was up 15 percent."

Mr. Wooten added that sales from September through December were stronger than normal.

"The opportunity for new business is there, but with uncertainty on supplies this year, we're focusing on taking care of our existing customers," he added. "I do detect a shortage as we move forward, but we won't know how serious it will be for some time. North Carolina, we feel, will go the distance."

Mr. Wooten added that there is increased sweet potato interest everywhere. you look. "Demand is good and prices are strong," he added. "Consumers have accepted sweet potatoes as a part of their year-round diets, and they see them as a healthy and flavorful product that offers multiple uses."

Mr. Wooten said that the company is reaching a milestone in 2010 - the 75th anniversary of the company. Plans are in the works for celebrations during the year.

Anthony Totta is director of sweet potato marketing and business development for Wada Farms Marketing Group in Idaho Falls, ID. Wada Farms is the marketing firm for the potato, onion and sweet potato lines for Dole Fresh Vegetables Inc., headquartered in Monterey, CA.

"The market continues to be strong and demand is increasing," said Mr. Totta. "Growth is steady but not radical, which is good because it means producers can keep up with it. Things are looking very positive for the year, with the only unknown being if the crop will take us through the end of the summer. We don't know how much shrink there will be in the southern states, and that may affect volumes moving forward. Growers are doing a good job of sorting their crops carefully, so what they're shipping is high quality. If volumes tighten, it could drive summer pricing very high."

Mr. Totta added that retailers are expressing interest in offering more variety in sweet potatoes and developing a category instead presenting it as an item. "Many are trying new varieties and offering more sizes," he said. "Individually wrapped and steamer bags of microwavable sweet potatoes are very popular. Within the next year or two, it will be uncommon for retailers to carry only one bulk display of sweet potatoes."

For Mississippi, there is a ray of sunshine this year. The Mississippi council is hosting the annual National Sweet Potato Convention Jan. 24-26 at the Beau Rivage Resort & Casino in Biloxi, MS.

"It will be the largest convention the sweet potato industry has had in its history," said Mr. Graves. "We expect an attendance of as many as 450 growers, packers, shippers and other industry professionals."