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Wayne E. Bailey sees best Thanksgiving sweet potato movement in 20 years

George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. in Chadbourn, NC, shared his exhilaration Nov. 23 over the strong Thanksgiving business the company had done. He was looking forward to sitting down at his own family Thanksgiving dinner the following day.

“Our family has a treasure trove of great sweet potato recipes,” he said.

Mr. Wooten said that Thanksgiving for his family always includes extra thanks for the sweet potato harvest.

“We had an outstanding Thanksgiving season,” he said. “It’s been a long time since we’ve had as good a year.”

Wayne E. Bailey reopened its Clinton, NC, facility for packing this year, which helped it push its retail business. Mr. Wooten said that combined with its great foodservice business, it was the best season the company had in 20 years.

Sweet potatoes are now a 12-month-a-year product, with demand that has grown exponentially over the past decade. Today, Wayne E. Bailey has to be prepared for the demand that will continue throughout the coming year.

“We increased our acreage again this year,” said Mr. Wooten. “Combined with our grower base, it gives us a substantial supply until the next crop is harvested. Our constant goal is to market 12 months a year.”

The processing market is also growing rapidly, taking as much as 35 percent of volumes today. Mr. Wooten said that supplies, especially on No. 1 sizes, may tighten up in the spring and summer because suppliers will be shorter due to the pull from processors.

He said that the sweet potato industry continues to be aided by mainstream media attention. Some food editors and even manufacturers are using sweet potatoes in their background. The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission recently participated in a roasting pan promotion that highlighted sweet potatoes.

“The sweet potato export market continues to grow and grow,” said Mr. Wooten. “It started in the United Kingdom and has spread throughout the European continent in recent years.”

Wayne E. Bailey is seeing tremendous growth in its 3- and 5-pound consumer bag products that satisfy the consumer habit of buying enough volume to use sweet potatoes regularly. Mr. Wooten said that most of the bagged product is used for casseroles, and bulk product is used for baking.

The company recently launched a 4-pack of sweet potatoes in a black overwrapped tray. Mr. Wooten said that one of the company’s customers is using the item and getting good responses. The item is good for baking because the sweet potatoes are uniform in size, averaging about 10 ounces each.

“We ran a major ad campaign for our one-and-one-half-pound bag of four- to six-ounce steamable sweet potatoes, 12 to a case,” Mr. Wooten added. “With our new display shipper case, retailers can merchandise the sweet potatoes in varied places in their stores. Once they have the shipper, they can order replenishing cartons of product.”

Wayne E. Bailey continues to promote its foodservice line of value-added sweet potato items, such as sticks, cubes and diced options. It is also offering a frozen diced item for industrial use.

To help it load its trucks, the company has also added a year-round sweet onion program from Georgia and Peru, and a butternut squash program.

“We’ve added eight new trucks to our mix,” said Mr. Wooten. “Trucking firm rates are getting outrageous, so we started TSP Logistics. Tim Burchette, a new hire, is our dispatcher. Tim has worked in the trucking business for many years.”

Wayne E. Bailey has added 150,000 square feet of storage space to its Chadbourn facility this year to keep up with its increased acreage. Mr. Wooten said that the company may add up to 15 percent to its acreage again next year.

Mr. and Mrs. Bailey celebrated their 37th wedding anniversary Nov. 24. Mr. Wooten noted, “Alice and I had no idea when we set the date over 37 years ago that it would turn out to be the busiest time of the year.”