With the widespread and growing demand for sweet potatoes, states are working hard to pump up production to meet the U.S. and offshore appetite with both fresh-market and processing supplies.
North Carolina has been, by far, the leading state in production volume for the past 10 years. In 2010, growers there planted 55,000 acres. Mississippi followed with 21,000 acres, followed by California with 18,000 acres and Louisiana with 13,500 acres. Alabama, Arkansas and Florida each produced between 3,000 and 3,500 acres. New Jersey and Texas came in at a little over 1,000 acres each.
North Carolina and California are the only two states that have shown consistent growth for the past decade. But Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Arkansas were faced with storms conditions in 2008 and 2009 that caused tremendous damage to crops.
Despite losses due to weather conditions in the past couple of years, sweet potato trade organizations continue to promote the product strongly, using the high nutrition, delicious and satisfying attributed associated with the item as key selling aids. These efforts, combined with new fresh-cut options that the foodservice industry has embraced, have consumers accepting sweet potatoes as a year round staple item that should not be reserved for holidays.
The North Carolina SweetPotato Commission, under the direction of Sue Johnson-Langton, has aggressively marketed to the media and directly to consumers in past years. Its extensive web site offers a wide range of information and materials for the trade, including retailers and foodservice operators, as well as to consumers and kids. Annual contests, recipe clubs and other events and information attract a wide range of people.
The Mississippi Sweet Potato Council employs Benny Graves as its executive secretary and treasurer. His upbeat personality never waned in the aftermath of the state's weather problems, and he continues to be an avid supporter of the entire U.S. sweet potato industry. The council was founded in 1964 to promote Mississippi Sweet Potatoes and to educate growers on the latest practices to improve their product and their livelihood.
The Louisiana Sweet Potato Advertising & Marketing Commission is made up of 11 members, appointed by the Louisiana Commissioner of Agriculture & Forestry, to represent growers, shippers, processors and bankers. René Simon, executive director of the organization, oversees its efforts to promote the consumption of sweet potatoes to consumers, including teachers and kids, and to represent growers, shippers, processors and bankers.
The California Sweet Potato Council was formed in 1977, and has as its objective putting together policies and programs that enhance the sweet potato industry in California. Bob Weimer, a sweet potato grower in Merced County, is also president of the council. Its web site provides industry information as well as nutritional facts, recipes and other consumer tips.
The trade and the public can glean more information from the International Potato Center, known by its Spanish acronym, CIP. The center focuses on reducing poverty and achieving food security in developing countries through scientific research and related activities. The organization is located in Lima, Peru, but its web site, www.cipotato.org, is accessible in English.
Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council Inc. in Columbia, SC, is a virtual human encyclopedia of sweet potato details, data and crop conditions across the country. The council is the main national organization for the promotion and marketing of sweet potatoes, and the major advocate of the sweet potato industry with government agencies.
"The councils and commissions across the U.S. are strongly united," said Mr. Walker. "They exercise healthy competition and are known for helping each other out in difficult times. We come together every January for the National Sweet Potato Convention, which is hosted by a different state each year."
Mr. Walker added that the sweet potato organizations financially support the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, as do producers in Alabama, New Jersey and Arkansas.
"I'm hearing that fresh-market shipments for this season are up by 6.2 percent," Mr. Walker added. "There was some concern about supplies lasting through the next harvest, due in part to more going to processing this year. A new ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston sweet potato processing plant opened near Dehli, Louisiana this season, and it is putting added demand on the market. However, those I've spoken with say they feel pretty sure that there will be enough sweet potatoes to last through the next harvest."
Mr. Walker noted that in November, the American Heart Association notified the council that U.S.-grown, orange-flesh sweet potato varieties are now certified to use the AHA's Heart-Check mark for promotional purposes.
"This is an added perk for the industry," said Mr. Walker. "We are proud to be supporting a product that is heart-healthy."