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Wayne E. Bailey increases sweet potato acreage to meet demand

by Christina DiMartino | December 06, 2010
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 2009.

“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.”