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Tater Man first in the market with cured Florida sweet potatoes

“We started digging Florida sweet potatoes on July 25 and wrapped up harvesting on September 12,” Jason Bell, account manager for Tater Man in Sydney, FL, told The Produce News. “The crop is in storage and is all cured. Movement and momentum has been very good. We have positioned ourselves with cured sweet potatoes from beginning to end, including throughout the Thanksgiving and Christmas push. We specialize in putting customers in touch with the highest-quality, freshest product. We strongly urge people to buy locally, and we strive for long-term sustainability.”

Mr. Bell said that growing conditions were very dry this year, but all of the company’s Florida fields are irrigated so it was able to provide the needed moisture.

“In all, we had above-average growing conditions,” he said. “It’s a very nice crop in both volume and quality. Prices don’t reflect the true shortage of supply today. This is attested to by the number of potatoes being dug and shipped straight to market. Prices are in the $16-per-40-pound-box range for U.S.-number-1 grade, and we’re trying to hold at $10 for number-2 and jumbo sizes.”

Tater Man has been shipping sweet potatoes since 1999 and has been growing them in Florida for two years. Besides Florida, it works with growing-partners in other key growing regions in the country.

Mr. Bell explained that Florida sweet potatoes have a niche window in the market.

“We fill a void that has existed for years,” he said. “Having our own window, our own land, and the ability to get the crop in and shipped is imperative to our program. We’re able to ship cured sweet potatoes when North Carolina has to ship green. Then we bridge the gaps with our grower-partners in North Carolina and Mississippi without ever having to ship a green potato. Our goal is to be first with good-quality product.”

The Florida sweet potato crop will ship through the Thanksgiving push. Mr. Bell expects it to be cleaned up around the first part of December. Tater Man then starts pulling off of its partners in other states for year-round movement, which it has done for several years.

Tater Man’s customers are retailers and processors. The company ships most of its crop throughout the Southeast, but it goes as far north as Canada. The company also handles strawberries, corn, cabbage, red potatoes and most other field vegetables that are locally grown.

“The demand for sweet potatoes continues to grow,” said Mr. Bell. “Fries are pushing the demand, but the greatest emphasis is on the nutritional value, which is driving consumption today. The momentum is really good.”

Tater man recently announced that it had created a new web site, www.tatermaninc.com, which was designed to emphasize the locally grown aspect of the company.

“Locally grown means fresher product and reduced transportation,” said Mr. Bell. “We see the locally grown trend as a strategic marketing advantage.”

The company also designed a new box for the 2011-12 season, in which it anticipates marketing over 1 million boxes of sweet potatoes. The box features a Suwannee River theme in keeping with the Tater Man’s farms that are located near the Florida-Georgia border. The box displays a cute Tater Man sweet potato in a kayak on the Suwannee River.

Approximately 80 percent of this season’s Tater Man crop is comprised of the Hernandez and Covington sweet potato varieties, which are known for consistent size, color and exceptional flavor. Approximately 10 percent of the crop is the Murasaki variety, which is also known as an Oriental or Japanese sweet potato. It has a dark purple exterior and a white interior. The remainder of the crop is made up from the Beauregard and Evangeline varieties.

Mark Vertrees is the marketing and business development director for Tater Man.

“I’ll be walking the Produce Marketing Association Fresh Summit in Atlanta in October,” said Mr. Vertrees. “I will be available to meet with customers and prospective customers during the show.”