A strong harvest expected for U.S. sweet potatoes
René Simon, executive director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Advertising and Marketing Commission, Baton Rouge, LA, was just in Wilmington, NC, for the 55th annual convention of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, said items up for discussion included growing methods, disease resistance, the different varieties and the economic aspects of sweet potato farmers.
“There are also things happening in Washington as far as trade that we are all keeping an eye on,” he said. “We had several different meetings on marketing and exporting, and ensuring that the plant material that our growers are using is the latest virus- and disease-free material.”
CoCo Daughtry, communications specialist for the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission, based in Benson, NC, who was also at the meeting, said the biggest concern in the industry is providing quality and affordable labor.
“We are monitoring our Washington representatives daily, ensuring that they are fully aware of the needs of an agriculture workforce at an affordable wage,” she said. “Access to these valuable workers is also key.”
While there was a lot of buzz at the meeting about what’s going on in the industry, it was also a chance for industry leaders to get together and share ideas and innovations, and comment on crop conditions and what everyone expects for the upcoming year.
In North Carolina, growers have experienced seasonal temperatures with the last few weeks being severely cold.
“We are expecting a warm spring with no threats of drought according to [the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration] as of right now,” Daughtry said. “2017 was a great crop year for sweet potatoes. We had average yields but exceptional quality throughout the state of North Carolina. Previous years we have experienced higher yields but lower quality. This was a good year to tighten things up across the board.”
Tami Long, director of marketing and business development for Nash Produce, located in Nashville, NC, agreed that the biggest issue facing the sweet potato industry — as it is most produce segments — is immigration and how it affects the labor force.
“We’re all watching that very carefully. Nash Produce follows all of the legislation out there right now,” she said. “For sweet potatoes and other produce, it’s very hands-on to harvest it and we need people so these immigration laws will be very important going forward for us.”
Another thing that Long is keeping an eye on is pricing, citing farms out there that are pricing sweet potatoes extremely low, which is not sustainable for the industry.
“The problem with that is some of these smaller players will not be able to survive,” Long said. “They will not be able to meet those prices and cover their expenses, so they may stop producing produce, which would be bad for the country. We need local produce or we’ll have to start buying overseas, which can be troublesome because they don’t follow the same rules.”
From what Simon hears from those in Mississippi, Arkansas, California and at home in Louisiana, he expects a strong harvest for sweet potatoes all over the country, not just North Carolina.
“Some people don’t realize what exports mean to us; they were up 26 percent in 2017,” Simon said. “We have to keep pushing these sweet potatoes into new markets. Europe is an ever-expanding market for us. They are being recognized not only nationally, but internationally for their good flavor and convenience.”
On a retail level, Daughtry noted that consumption is on the rise due to the extensive efforts in all types of products manufactured with sweet potatoes.
“The best tools for retailers are educating consumers on how to prepare sweet potatoes, their nutritional value and versatility, which seem to be the best ways to convince consumers to purchase more,” she said. “Currently we are working on promotions to help boost the demand across the U.S. We are plugged in and working with registered dietitians, in the hopes that these food influencers will help educate the public and drive demand.”
The commission is also working in conjunction with NC Ag in the Classroom teachers to write K-12 curriculum, with the belief that if you start educating at an early age, you will create lifelong consumers of sweet potatoes.