CHADBOURN— For decades, Americans mainly consumed sweet potatoes in casseroles flowing with butter and marshmallows on Thanksgiving and Christmas. But in recent years this mainstay of North Carolina agriculture has charted new territories – on restaurant menus, in healthy drinks and as frozen french fries on grocery store aisles.
The new products – most notably the french fry – and an increased awareness of the sweet potato’s nutrients have contributed to increasing U.S. demand. That’s good news for North Carolina, the top supplier of sweet potatoes in the U.S. since 1971. In 2012, the state produced 1.24 billion pounds of sweet potatoes on 62,000 acres, a nearly 68 percent increase in harvested acreage since 2002.
“I don’t think I have seen the growth in a crop like I have seen in the last five to seven years,” said Craig Yencho, a N.C. State University professor who leads the sweet potato-breeding program there. “It has been remarkable.”
Agriculture is big business in North Carolina – the biggest by some accounts. It contributes $70 billion a year to the state’s economy, accounts for 18 percent of its income and employs more than 17 percent of the workforce, including 52,400 farmers, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.
But it’s not just what farmers are able to grow or raise on their land that matters; it’s also how those commodities are packaged and sold to consumers. North Carolina companies are heavily involved in the makeover of the sweet potato.
National sweet potato consumption declined dramatically in the 1900s as producers were slow to market to restaurants and create packaged sweet potato goods for grocery stores, said George Wooten, a third-generation president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce, a Chadbourn sweet potato processor that packs and ships more than 200 million pounds of the vegetable annually.
Annual per capita use of sweet potatoes peaked at 29.5 pounds in 1920, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but fell to as low as 3.7 pounds in the 1990s.
In response to the decline, Wooten and others in the industry sought to increase demand through marketing and by experimenting with new products. They also worked with the USDA, N.C. State and others to identify more consistent varieties and establish curing methods that increased the life of the potato.
In recent years, per capita sweet potato use has increased, reaching 6.3 pounds in 2010.
Wayne E. Bailey Produce grows about 5,400 acres of sweet potatoes across the country and employs about 400 mainly part-time and seasonal workers. In 1989 the company was the first sweet potato processor in the nation to invest in an electronic scale system – already used in the white potato industry – that sorts potatoes based on size and weight.
The consistent size and year-round availability helped Wooten sell the vegetable to the restaurant industry, he said.
The success, however, created challenges.
For every box of fresh, unblemished sweet potatoes sent to restaurants and distributors, there was another, almost full box of vegetables that were too large, too small or blemished. Some of the low-grade potatoes were sent to canning companies, but many were left over, Wooten said.
After more than a decade of researching various products – including a sweet potato dipped in chocolate – Wooten opened a processing facility in Pembroke in 2006 under the name of George Foods to manufacture fresh and frozen sweet potato sticks, cubes, discs and other items.
Sales didn’t cover the facility’s costs. But then the frozen sweet-potato fry started to emerge. Wooten said he initially didn’t have much faith in the fry because he didn’t think it could compete with the white potato, but he changed his mind as national food service companies began selling the fry to restaurants. A key part of the success, Wooten and others said, was the discovery of a clear-coat batter that gave the mushy vegetable a vital crispiness.
Wooten started manufacturing sweet potato fries at a Canadian plant under the George Foods brand. In 2012, he and 29 other investors established Trinity Frozen Foods to bring the fry production to Pembroke. The 156,000-square-foot facility plans to begin producing sweet potato fries in August.
Jere Null, chief executive officer and president of Trinity Frozen Foods, said the company’s proximity to sweet potato farmers gives it an edge, shaving up to a quarter off shipping costs.
Over the past three years, sweet potato fry sales have grown about 40 percent annually, Null said. When the plant opens in August it will employ about 35 people, but Null hopes to add shifts and build those numbers to 150 in the first two years.
Norman Brown, vice president of Bruce Foods, which is headquartered in Louisiana but has had a vegetable processing facility in Wilson since 1973, said he doesn’t see the new products as competition.
“A rising tide raises all ships,” Brown said. “If we make a quality product in different forms, each will sell and increase in sales.”
Bruce Foods processes 200 million pounds of sweet potatoes annually in Wilson and has the top selling brand of canned sweet potato products in the U.S., Brown said. Newer products include a sweet potato pie filling and a puree that is sold to restaurants and institutions. The 250,000-square-foot plant also processes other vegetables and employs about 200 full-time and seasonal workers.
Trinity will be the largest producer of sweet potato fries in the state, but not the first. That distinction goes to Nice Blends, a former New York company that in 2011 opened a 60,000-square-foot plant in Whiteville, about 40 miles southeast of Pembroke.
Nice Blends owner Barrie Nadi, whose background is in fried-chicken restaurants and blending herbs and spices, started producing sweet potato fries in New York City in 2005 after his son said younger generations crave a healthier alternative to the white potato fry.
“We put it on the market and all of a sudden it took off,” Nadi said.
Nice Blends employees 17 and plans to produce 8 million pounds of fries this year.
“I believe in the sweet potato itself, strongly,” he said, “because I see the demand is not just nationally, not just regionally, it is globally.”