Growers fine-tune sweet potato marketing

Normally, you would think the end use of the sweet potato is baked and buttered. But two different groups of producers in North Carolina decided in 2008 to put their resources into marketing strategies based on a paste made by cooking and mashing yams and selling the resulting puree to food service and groceries.

One, a group of farmers in Stokes County, N.C., was looking for another way to add value and market the gourmet sweet potatoes they were growing.

Most of their sweet potatoes were of the Beauregard variety, a conventional orange sweet potato. They were also growing some white sweet potatoes of the O’Henry variety. They had had some success selling Beauregards and O’Henry’s to local groceries and restaurants and also direct from the field to consumers who were attracted by word of mouth.

But their big hope for the future is a purple variety of sweet potato developed in Stokes County. The farmers believed the variety could prove very valuable indeed, and they formed a company to market it.

In 2008, a plant in Pembroke, N.C., made itself available to process the purple sweet potatoes into a puree. They are chopped up, cooked, mashed and quick frozen at the plant, then distributed in puree form.

“So we are not selling any purple sweet potatoes whole,” says grower McRay Greene Jr. of Walnut Cove, N.C. “Instead, we are selling all our production in the form of this puree. That way, we avoid any patent infringement that might occur if someone got one of our purple potatoes and planted it. You can’t produce a slip from a puree.”

The puree can be used in any recipe that calls for sweet potatoes.

“We have begun selling the puree on a limited basis at a Whole Foods Grocery Store in Winston-Salem,” says Mike Sizemore. “After Christmas, Whole Foods hoped to get the puree in its stores in Durham, Chapel Hill and Raleigh. It may be introduced soon in Atlanta too.”

At the Winston-Salem store, the puree sells out almost as soon as it gets on the shelves, says Sizemore. “The store incorporates the puree into its own recipes that can be bought from their “prepared foods” section. Sometimes they make the thawed puree available in the refrigerated food section.”

Another company, D’Vine Foods of Elizabethtown, N.C., uses the puree to make a purple sweet potato butter.

“Our growers get more money from the puree because it uses both larger and smaller potatoes, not just the No. 1s,” says Sizemore. “One grower told me he made more money per acre on the purple sweet potatoes than he did on tobacco. It has a good enough yield and a reasonable enough cost of production that the purple sweet potato gives you a good chance of profit.”

In 2007, the first significant year of production of the Stokes Purples, there were five growers with 10 acres, and they produced 140,000 pounds. In 2008, there were 10 growers with 25 acres, and they produced 190,000 pounds.

“This year we will try to plant a little earlier, as soon as possible after the last killing frost,” says Greene. “These potatoes take 120 days in the field, compared to Beauregards which take only 90.”

Sizemore says production for 2009 hasn’t been determined, but growers are interested in expanding. “They bring their potatoes to us and ask us, ‘How many acres can we grow next year?”

So far, only the Stokes Purples have been pureed, although the Beauregards and O’Henrys may be tested in this process later.

A sweet potato-processing plant in Snow Hill, N.C., is producing a new sweet potato puree using continuous-flow microwave heating technology developed at North Carolina State University.

The plant was built by a company formed by seven North Carolina sweet potato growers named YamCo.

YamCo has a patented licensing agreement with NCSU researchers to produce a sweet potato puree that doesn’t need refrigeration. This makes it more appealing to various sectors of the food service industry.

It certainly is appealing to the growers. The new process provides a new market for less-than-perfect sizes or shapes of sweet potatoes that might ordinarily be discarded, says Rosalie Marion Bliss of USDA’s Agricultural Research Service.

“That's because all sweet potato sizes and shapes can be used to make the new, shelf-stable puree,” she says.

Many of the YamCo and Stokes Purple growers are tobacco growers who were looking for a new or alternative crop.

“The lower cost of fuel and the absence of a need for curing fuel both favor sweet potatoes over tobacco,” says Greene, who got out of tobacco altogether after deregulation. “The profit for sweet potatoes should be as good or better than tobacco this year. Hopefully, this will be a crop to save some family farms in our area.”

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