George Wooten, owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Company in Chadbourn,
NC, said that North Carolina had the best crop of sweet potatoes in the
country in 2009, but shortages in other states put severe pressure on
supplies during the past summer.
"The demand for sweet potatoes is stronger than ever today, so a short
volume year puts a lot of pressure on the market," said Mr. Wooten. “We have
a little more in storage this year, and the crop is very high quality. Still, we
think that come next July, we're going to feel some supply pressure again.
Despite that, we have planned carefully and feel that we’ll be able to meet our
customer’s needs throughout the season.”
While the supply and demand rule should apply to pushing prices higher, Mr.
Wooten said that sweet potatoes continue to be an outstanding value, and
consumers should be able to buy them at affordable prices. He noted that 99
cents a pound at retail is a gracious price.
Several factors are attributing to the strong and growing demand for sweet
potatoes. Noted as one of the “super foods,” sweet potatoes fit into nearly
every diet scheme, whether it’s weight-loss or health-related.
“Sweet potatoes are on the HarvestPlus list of crops that are believed will
contribute to reducing malnutrition in the world,” said Mr. Wooten, referring
to the organization that seeks to reduce hidden hunger and provide
micronutrients to billions of people directly through the staple foods that they
eat. It was started in 2004 with a $25 million donation from the Bill and
Melinda Gates Foundation.
“Sweet potatoes were chosen because they are low in sodium, saturated fat
and cholesterol, and are a good source of dietary fiber and vitamins,” he said,
“They have a low glycemic index. Imagine, if sweet potatoes can contribute to
ending malnutrition in the world, how they can help the diseases that afflict
Americans, like diabetes.”
Another reason sweet potatoes are enjoying a surge of popularity today is the
many ways they are offered. Savvy retailers know that sweet potatoes are now
a category, not just an item. They are available in bulk, steamable bags,
individually wrapped, ready to microwave and in numerous consumer bag
sizes. And, sweet potato fries are a hot item in the foodservice industry today.
“Fresh-cut sweet potatoes have shown gradual growth, but we expect this
category to grow as consumers become more aware of them,” said Mr.
Wooten. “One of the detriments to preparing sweet potato fries at home is
how hard they are to cut. As more consumers realize they can buy a bag of
already cut fries in the produce department, the demand will increase. We’ve
been offering fresh cut since 2006, but as with all new items, they take a
while to catch on.”
Mr. Wooten said the Nov. 15 sweet potato movement year-to-date report
from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Market News Service showed that
sweet potatoes shipped so far nationwide was 12 percent higher than in
“If we have a strong holiday season, crops across the country could be
depleted, and we have a strong July 2011 to consider,” he explained. “The
November market typically brings a 20-25 percent increase in demand due to
Thanksgiving. We expect as strong a holiday season as ever this year.”
Sweet potato exports are also on the rise, which puts added stress on the
nation’s crop. Mr. Wooten said that the European demand grows steadily,
“and they don’t have Thanksgiving,” he added, “meaning they are eating them
because they love them.“
Once the holiday push for sweet potatoes starts to wane, the industry works
on creating a push to keep the interest strong. North Carolina proclaims
February as sweet potato month in an effort to promote the item.
“February’s promotions give us more exposure at a period in the year when
we don’t normally have it,” said Mr. Wooten. “But with the demand growing
the way it is, it’s only a matter of time before sweet potatoes will be a year-
round staple in homes across the country every month of the year.”