When Congress passed the Fair and Equitable Tobacco Reform Act in October 2004, some North Carolina farmers were deeply worried. The Tobacco Transition Payment Program was put in place in February 2005 and provided payments to tobacco quota holders and producers through 2014.
So North Carolina growers knew they had to find something else to go in the ground if they wanted to stay in business.
Some of them already had a foothold on a new future without even knowing it. Sweet potatoes have been a part of North Carolina cuisine and culture for ages. But as the rest of the world began to catch on about the good news about sweet potatoes as a superfood, consumption and demand began to rise — and they haven’t stopped yet.
Nash Produce is the state’s largest grower, based in Nashville, NC with farms spread out all across the state. The company is North Carolina’s leading producer and also supplies the industry with transplants to start each year’s new crop.
“The growth in the industry has certainly encouraged us to have more transplant beds to meet the demand,” says Nash CEO Thomas Joyner. “In North Carolina this past year we had roughly between 95,000-98,000 acres, I think it will be in that range again this year. We’ve had a really good crop, we have a lot of potatoes stored now off of the 2016 crop and demand continues to be good.”
Marketing Director Laura Hearn has been with Nash eight years and says she has seen “20 percent growth each year – we’ve doubled in size in the last five years, the demand has been incredible. People are crazy about sweet potatoes and some are just learning about them and finding new ways to cook with them, sweet and savory. It’s given us the most fun, creative problem to solve: How do we get people to buy and cook with them on a regular basis instead of just around the holidays?”
Electronic sizing like that provided by some of the new equipment Nash has added over the last two seasons as its storage capacity has gone through the roof, has helped. So has value-added packaging, like steamable bags and individually wrapped potatoes.
“People don’t have time to go home and prepare gourmet meals, they want it done for them and who can blame them?” Hearn asks. “We’ve been able to leverage that on the value-added and convenience side. This is going to be a big year for us in innovation on both the retail and foodservice side to save time and still have that nutritious and delicious potato. There’s so much opportunity with value-added because with produce not everything has been packaged in the past.”
Joyner expects even more growth in the value-added category. He notes that in Europe, consumers have come to love single-serving pre-packaged sweet potatoes that include various packaged sauces and spices “and ultimately that’s the direction we’ll go here.”
The European market is something the team at Boyette Brothers knows a lot about. The family has been farming in Wilson, NC for a century. The farm has always grown sweet potatoes as part of its offerings, but in 2011 it made the decision to get out of the tobacco business and put its full focus on sweet potatoes. “We opened our packing facility the following year,” says Marketing Manager Erica Barajas. “Boyette Brothers quickly began exporting the majority of our product to Europe. Fortunately, we are continuing to grow our business overseas.”
But the Boyettes have also recently put more focus on the domestic market as well.
“Since the Boyette family has been growing sweet potatoes in North Carolina for over thirty years, increasing awareness in our own backyard only felt natural,” Barajas says. “Having a presence at domestic trade shows has opened new doors for us here in the U.S, so we plan to exhibit at PMA Fresh Summit in October as well.”
Peak growing season is May-October and the new season harvest usually starts in August. Controlled climate storage keeps North Carolina sweet potatoes fresh and available year-round.
Another market segment that’s shown dramatic growth is organic sweet potatoes. Just beyond the horizon, experiments with different varieties are taking place.
“We do a lot of organics, that’s a growing market,” Joyner says. “And we do some varieties, the Murasaki, purple-skinned with white flesh, and the Bonita. We try new varieties but most of the crop in the U.S. and certainly NC is the Covington, something that has a great taste to it but also looks great on a plate.”
Says Barajas, “We added a new organic packing line to our facilities this summer. The decision to expand our organic production came after seeing a steady increase in demand over the last few seasons, as well as the desire to keep our production and quality control in-house. We have great relationships with local growers and plan to increase organic production significantly over the next few years.”