When you think of consuming sweet potatoes, the image that comes to mind is usually orange tubers baked, split open and doused in butter. In recent years, a few new uses — like sweet potato chips and fries — have found a place in the consumption picture. But what about sweet potato used as an ingredient in vegetable juices?
The potential is promising enough that Universal Leaf Tobacco Co. is building a facility to extract juices from the sweet potato. The facility, operated by ULTC’s subsidiary, Carolina Innovative Food Ingredients (CIFI), is located at the same site as ULTC’s leaf processing plant near Nashville, N.C.
Processing could begin sometime this fall.
Why vegetable juice? It is the fastest growing sector of the U.S. juice market, said John Kimber, CIFI’s chief operating officer, as consumers seek out healthier, more exciting products. “Our minimally processed, non-GMO sweet potato juice will enhance premium juice blends and other specialty products.”
In addition, there will be functional benefits including fiber, a variety of vitamins and minerals, and a low glycemic index, he said.
One substantial benefit for farmers is that the juicing process doesn’t require the big good-looking grade of sweet potato that goes into groceries and restaurants. Instead, fruits that are too small or too large or are misshapen in some way will probably work just fine.
“We are building a business with less than perfect sweet potatoes,” said Kimber. “These type of potato are sometimes hard for the farmer to market, and this can create a use.”
Fresh market strong
As planting begins, the market outlook for fresh market sweet potatoes looks very strong.
“When North Carolina growers planted 73,000 acres a year ago, I thought sure that would crash the market,” said Joel Boseman, grower-packer-shipper, Battleboro, N.C. “But this crop is moving well and I expect all of the old crop potatoes will be sold by the time the new crop begins to come in. There is just a huge demand right now, and I don’t see any problems coming up.”
Fresh prices are good, about $16 per 40 pound carton.
“I can’t think of anything negative to say about the outlook for sweet potatoes right now.”
The overseas market is growing fast, Boseman said. “It absorbs everything we throw at it.”
Boseman sells sweet potatoes to Holland and Germany, among others. “They like little potatoes,” he said. “They do a lot of processing with them once they arrive.”
The appealing market situation is causing a number of tobacco farmers who have suffered cuts in their leaf contracts to increase their sweet potato plantings, said Boseman. There will be some first-time sweet potato growers in the Tar Heel state as well.
North Carolina grows by far the largest acreage of sweet potatoes, and it has been estimated that 60 percent of North Carolina’s sweet potato growers also grow tobacco. The state’s production is located almost entirely in the coastal plain.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimated at the end of March that North Carolina growers will plant 75,000 acres this year, a three percent increase. But Boseman said it might be substantially more.
CIFI held two grower meetings in the off-season this year. Roughly 200 growers attended, Kimber said.
The company is committed to sourcing sweet potatoes from North Carolina, but not likely from any other states.
“Because of concerns about sweet potato weevils, it will be essentially impossible for CIFI to bring in sweet potatoes from other southern states,” said Kimber. “North Carolina is weevil free in the growing areas now.” CIFI is not contracting with farmers yet. “But eventually we would like to forward contract as much as we can.”
The product sourcing manager is Josh Warren, and Kimber said Warren would be glad to hear from farmers interested in growing for the juice plant. You can call him at 252 343 1668 or email him at [email protected]
There is another end use for sweet potatoes that is on the way up now. Natural Blend Vegetable Dehydration is producing various pet food products from sweet potatoes at its plant in Farmville, N.C. Natural Blend will be managed by Ham Produce Company, Inc., which operates one of the largest farming operations of sweet potatoes in North Carolina.
“The dehydration facilities will provide a value-added process that enables the entire sweet potato crop to be sold and used,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.
She noted that value-added processes have improved sweet potato sales since 2001, as sweet potato chips and fries were added, along with microwaveable sweet potatoes, sweet potato vodka and beer, and even a sweet potato health drink.
She estimates that 25 percent to 30 percent of the sweet potatoes grown here are not harvested or are culled out during processing because they are too big, too small or misshapen.