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Last year, Chadbourn, NC-based Wayne E. Bailey placed an additional focus on its brand names and packaging.

“We pack sweet potatoes for ‘Green Giant Fresh,’ for example,” said George Wooten, president of the company. “Our initial focus was on bulk packs for the label, but we have learned that people want more convenient items, such as three- and five-pound bags, which we now offer with the ‘Green Giant Fresh’ label.”

The company also changed the brand name of its privately labeled convenient sweet potato items from “Playboy” to “George Foods.” The high-graphic packaging and labeling were designed to draw consumer attention. Mr. Wooten explained that the company had used the “Playboy” label long before the magazine of the same name was first introduced, but nonetheless it caused some confusion with today’s customers.

“Convenience items that we’re pushing under the ‘George Foods’ label are trays, bags and microwavable sweet potatoes,” he said. “Bulk product is shipped under several names. But our foodservice bulk pack is also now under the ‘George Foods’ label.”

He added that the demand for sweet potatoes at the foodservice level is growing right along with the fresh and processing sides.

Mr. Wooten served as president of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council in 2012. For 2013 he passed the gavel to Ken Thornhill at the 51st annual meeting, Jan. 20-22 at the Westin-Charlotte in Charlotte, NC.

Mr. Thornhill is with Thornhill Farms LLC, in Wisner, LA. Besides sharing other important industry news, he said that there was discussion about crisis management during the meeting.

“We discussed outbreaks and contamination and other issues that can arise with a sweet potato crop,” he said. “When growers from numerous states come together to share their knowledge, it benefits the entire industry.

“There was also some talk about bulk harvesting as opposed to hand harvesting sweet potatoes,” he continued. “Some states are split between the two systems. There is some concern about damaging the potatoes when they are machine, or bulk, harvested.”

The topics covered at the meeting also included the price of sweet potatoes. Demand is extremely strong today, with sweet potato French fries pushing it higher. Despite that, prices are not increasing the way growers would like to see.

Total acreage in North Carolina, the county’s No. 1 sweet potato-producing state, is down this year, but there is a slight increase in yield. Mr. Wooten said that based on current statistics, the 2012 crop will run out right on time in September, just as the next crop harvest is beginning.

“The 2011 crop ran all the way into the next November and December,” said Mr. Wooten. “But the 2012 crop will end much sooner. And I don’t think there will be new interest or added sweet potato acres planted this year. Some growers are transitioning some of their sweet potato acreage to soy, hay and corn because prices are firmer. Surprisingly, there is also a push to plant more tobacco.”

He added that everything is moving along nicely this season, and that sweet potato demand has stayed strong since the holidays.

“We had a better January than last year,” he noted. “This is because sweet potatoes are enjoying more of a year-round demand as compared to several years ago when the demand at holiday time took up 35 to 40 percent of the entire crop. The numbers are much different today because people want to enjoy sweet potatoes 12 months a year.”