ORANGE BEACH, AL -- More than 300 growers and associates have gathered here for the United States Sweet Potato Council's 49th annual convention, hosted by the Alabama Sweet Potato Association Jan. 23-25 at the Perdido Beach Resort.
February is National Sweet Potato Month, and the industry will have much to celebrate. For the last decade, production and consumption have steadily increased. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average American ate 4.2 pounds of sweet potatoes in 2004. By 2007, that number had increased to 4.6 pounds, and sweet potato consumption has grown by 21 percent over the last five years.
"We're excited about that," said Arnold Caylor, a sweet potato expert and director of Auburn University's North Alabama Horticultural Research Center in Cullman, AL. "Most commodities are flat or declining, so we're in a good position."
Elberta, AL, grower Leonard Kichler, president of the Alabama Sweet Potato Association and the United States Sweet Potato Council, said, "It's really taken off. Sweet potatoes are good for you, there are many health benefits, and now they're making all these frozen products out of them, and that's just going to boost everything. Acreage is increasing, and from what I'm told, sweet potatoes are catching up to Irish potatoes."
Sweet potato farmers face many of the same problems growers of other commodities deal with: environmental restrictions and water concerns, labor shortages and the H-2A visa program, and a tangle of new food- safety legislation out of Washington, DC. There are workshops dealing with all of those topics and more at the convention.
New food-safety regulations and the looming implementation of Produce Traceability Initiative milestones have "got a lot of people worried -- it's got some of these small farmers really worried," Mr. Kichler said.
Sweet potato growers are "probably going to get sick and tired of food safety -- we're heavy handed on it, especially since they passed the new food safety law," added Mr. Caylor. "We have some good speakers talking about that, and hopefully that will ease some minds. It can be a scary thing. You get in a comfort zone and get accustomed to that, and if you're pushed out of it, there's always that fear of the unknown. But food safety is here to stay, and that's a good thing. I tell growers most of it is just common-sense stuff, things they're doing anyway. Now you've just got to document it."
The industry's labor concerns "are the same as everybody else's" Mr. Caylor said. Added Mr. Kichler, "H-2A's another issue; what they've got now is really not that good."
But those common problems aside, sweet potato growers find themselves in the enviable position of providing a commodity that consumers are clamoring for. In September, the Lamb Weston Division of ConAgra Foods Inc. opened the country's first sweet potato processing plant in Delhi, LA, cranking out more than 20 different frozen sweet potato products, many of them variations on french fries. The $210-million facility employs 240 workers and can process 25 tons of sweet potatoes per hour. ConAgra expects the workforce to more than double to 500 within five years.
"This plant will need about 22,000 acres of sweet potatoes … in addition to what's already being grown," Mr. Caylor said. "Once they get that in full swing, I think it's really going to take off."
In addition to the association meetings, the convention is also home to the 2011 National Sweetpotato Collaborators Group conference. Comprised of researchers, scientists, Extension specialists, graduate students and crop consultants, the group formed in 1939 to exchange information about all aspects of sweet potato production and post-harvest research and extension. The collaborators group coordinates annual regional trials of promising sweet potato varieties being developed by participating geneticists, reviews the results of those regional trials, and agrees on germplasm lines to be entered and evaluated the following year.
High in fiber and packed with beta carotene, Vitamin A and other nutrients, sweet potato consumption has been boosted by Americans seeking healthier food choices, and the tuber has become a darling with television chefs and food media.
"Anytime you can get promotion like that, where somebody will say, 'Hey, this is good for you and you can lose weight,' that was a good promotion," Mr. Caylor said. "The health aspects of it have played a tremendous role in the increased popularity. Plus the promotional aspects -- we've been trying to get out there and push the product a little bit more. The emphasis has been to promote it more as a year-round product. This is good for you and it tastes good. You have the processing industry getting involved. Sweet potato french fries are extremely popular, baked sweet potatoes are on the menu at many restaurants, and you're starting to see them a lot more in the chip market."
While these are high times for sweet potato growers -- last year's harvest was roughly 2 billion pounds -- even the tremendous growth of the last decade is a far cry from historic consumption. As recently as 1943, per capita consumption in the United States was 21.7 pounds.
Said Mr. Kichler, "My dad's 91 years old; that's what they'd lived on back during the Depression."
Added Mr. Caylor, "Growing up, sweet potatoes were an everyday fact of life for us. Both my grandmothers and mother made sweet potato french fries. They were fairly common with us. I thought, 'Man, why don't more people eat these?' I think the word's finally just getting out. Hopefully this will be a trend that continues to increase."