KANSAS CITY — As more and more consumers learn about the many health benefits of sweet potatoes, the vegetable long associated with Thanksgiving and Christmas is emerging as a year-round favorite.

It’s the annual goal of Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce to transition between old-crop and new-crop sweet potatoes so seamlessly that customers and consumers don’t even notice the changeover, said Rebecca Scott, the company’s grower accounting and marketing director.

This year’s late-season crop, for instance, looked and tasted just as good as new-crop product out of the fields last fall, Scott said.

“Our facilities have been growing over the past two years to include additional controlled temperature storage, which it a great benefit for extending the crop until the following year’s harvest occurs.”

Sand Candy Produce, a new participant in the sweet potato deal, expects a smooth transition from old to new crop, with very little overlap, said Troy Bland, CEO of Glennville, Ga.-based Bland Farms and one of the principles of Sand Candy.

That may not, however, be the case for all shippers.

“For the industry, it looks like it could be a tricky transition with a lot of old crop sweet potatoes still in storage,” Bland said. “Buyers will need to be sure what they’re receiving from suppliers through Thanksgiving this year.”

For the most part, North Carolina growers will be starting with a fresh crop this season, as all of the 2020 product was moved during the 2020 season, said Michelle Grainger, executive director of the Benson-based North Carolina Sweetpotato Commission.

“We expect an excellent crop this season,” Grainger said. “Our 2020 season was very successful and we expect overwhelming demand for this year’s crop.”

The commission has heard from some of its growers that yields are up and the season is looking great, but in other parts of the state where it’s wetter or dryer, the opposite could be true, she said.

An investment in year-round coverage

In addition to Nash Produce’s several new controlled-temperature facilities, which are used for both curing and storing sweet potatoes throughout the year, the company has also installed a new bulk loader and scale for increased accuracy.

This year’s crop was sizing up very well as harvest neared, and overall volumes appear to be right where they need to be to keep up with the rising demand, Scott said. The growing season got off to a cold start and has been abnormally wet, but Nash Produce’s network of growers excellent quality at harvest. The company expected to begin transitioning to the new crop towards the end of October.

Sweet potato volume has been on the rise for several years, due to the not-so-secret discovery of all the positive health benefits they offer, Scott said.

“There is genuinely no downside to enjoying sweet potatoes. They’re packed with beta-carotene, potassium, and many essential vitamins and minerals. Dietitians rave over the health benefits of consuming them, they’re available fresh year-round, and there are so many ways to enjoy them.”

Sweet potatoes’ natural sweetness is also good for consumers with diabetes. Diabetic patients who consume sweet potatoes on a routine basis improve their blood sugar levels.

Diversified sourcing

Sand Candy, Bland said, combines the strengths of each of its partners, which are drawn from both Georgia and North Carolina. (Besides Bland Farms, member companies include Battleboro Produce, Boyette Brothers Produce LLC and Sandyland Produce.)

“The company provides diversification of growing areas, which can reduce volume risk for our customers due to bad weather in one of the regions.”

The North Carolina-based partners have a strong and growing export customer base, while the Georgia business has extensive and long relationships with many of the top US retailers, Bland added.

The company’s goal in its first year is to build the business by helping its US retailers and export customers expand their sales of sweet potatoes. It will do that, he said, by providing ample volumes to promote and a range of product sizes and packaging styles.

“We also have the ability to have multiple shipping points, which will enable us to reduce freight costs.”

The demand for sweet potatoes continues to increase, due in large part to the health benefits, Bland said. Sand Candy’s member growers have also found that the convenience of year-round availability drives demand.

Sand Candy will be able to provide full marketing and promotional services to customers including in-store POS, social media, and customer-specific marketing. In addition, the company can provide mixed loads of sweet potatoes and sweet onions as needed, as well as mixed bins of sweet potatoes and sweet onions upon request.

And the company is offering all pack styles, from 3 and 5 lb bags to shrink wrap and steamables.

Merchandising musts

When it comes to effectively merchandising sweet potatoes, Scott said one key is to have a high volume of sweet potatoes positioned on attractive displays to help draw the consumer’s eye in their direction.

That approach works year-round, but is especially effective at major holidays like Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, Scott said.

Grainger said the key to merchandising at retail is to keep them front and center year-round.

“This is no longer seen as a holiday commodity – it’s a nutritious, versatile vegetable that people are consuming on a weekly basis. And with demand growing and them being more prominent in recipes everywhere, consumers are coming into stores looking for them. Display them proudly!”

Nash Produce also encourages its retail partners to source fresh product weekly to prevent waste and boost sales by always keeping freshly packaged product in inventory. At Nash Produce facilities, product ships within 24 hours to maximize freshness.

As more and more consumers prioritize grab-and-go convenience, Nash Produce has seen an uptick in sales of 3- and 5-pound mesh bags in recent years, Scott said. COVID accelerated that even more.

Nash Produce’s other convenience items include individually wrapped microwavable sweet potatoes and microwave-friendly steamable petite pouches, both hot sellers at retail. Perfect for a quick side dish or main course, both options are excellent for busy families who are searching for a fast, hot and nutritious meal, Scott said.

To handle the increased demand for packaged product, Nash Produce has added new bagging machines.

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