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Nutrition and exports are key draws for U.S. Sweet Potato Council

The United States’ sweet potato industry is thriving as growers have capitalized on the nutritional component of their crop and built strong export markets, according to Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, headquartered in Columbia, SC.

The boom took off in the last decade, Walker said. Boosting the nutritional message was a study by the Center for Science in the Public Interest that rated sweet potatoes as the most-nutritious vegetable.

SP-fieldA Louisiana sweet potato grower takes a look at his growing sweet potato vines. Beyond the nutritional component, Walker said, “people think sweet potatoes taste good and they like to eat them.”

Walker doesn’t have national foodservice sales numbers but he said his membership indicates strong sales to foodservice, as well as retail customers.

In foodservice, “sweet potatoes are used in a lot of different ways.”

The frozen food industry has capitalized on the appeal of sweet potatoes, with several manufacturers each offering a handful of sweet potato products.

Walker reported the latest USDA statistics for national sweet potato production. This totaled 2.65 billion pounds in 2012. This was down a tiny fraction from 2.70 billion pounds in 2011, which was up from 2.38 billion in 2010. U.S. sweet potato production rose from 1.84 billion pounds in 2008 to 1.95 billion in 2009.

Because of weather problems on the East Coast this year, USDA estimates that acreage planted in 2013 will be down 11 percent from last year. “It would have to be a very, very big crop” on surviving acres to surpass 2012 volume, he noted.

Walker has lived in South Carolina for almost 28 years and has never seen rain like the summer of 2013.

“It seemed like it rained four out of five days,” he said.

North Carolina’s sweet potato crop will certainly be down this year. Prices for North Carolina number one grade on Sept. 20 were in the $16-18 range for 40-pound cartons. This is up from a year ago, which was in the $14-15 range; a point at which “growers felt like they weren’t making any money. The cost of production goes up every year. Especially for labor. This has gotten to be a very expensive proposition.”

The export of U.S. sweet potatoes has skyrocketed from 26.6 metric tons in 2003 to 111.7 metric tons in 2012, Walker said, quoting USDA Foreign Agriculture Service numbers. The biggest foreign buyer of U.S. sweet potatoes is Canada, but the United Kingdom “is a very, very bright spot since 2003.”

Because his sweet potato council has a “very small budget,” the organization restricts its promotional spending to supporting the Produce for Better Health Foundation and the American Heart Association. Both of these organizations promote healthy eating, which is, of course, the strength of U.S. sweet potatoes.