Editor’s Note: February is Potato Lover’s Month. To commemorate the event, we asked one of our growers, Wada Farms, to help us dig into the potato and sweet potato markets in the United States and Europe.
I’ve been in the produce industry all of my life. My first 30 years were spent on my family’s bell pepper farm in Florida, and for the last 21 years, I’ve been working with North Carolina sweet potatoes. I work for Wada Farms—an Idaho-based grower/packer/shipper of potatoes, onions, and sweet potatoes—but I’m based in our Raleigh, NC, office.
Wada Farms has been growing Idaho potatoes since 1943. Today, we’re one of the largest producers of Idaho potatoes for the U.S. domestic market. Wada Farms has been a strong supporter of the Idaho Potato Commission and their annual Potato Lover’s Month promotions for several decades, so I’m very appreciative of the opportunity to talk about this holiday with Robinson Fresh.
The Idaho Potato Commission has been instrumental over the years in establishing Idaho potatoes as the premium potato available to shoppers across the United States. Many consumers recognize Idaho potatoes as being a brand, and they are marketed so well that consumers frequently ask for them by name. Seventy-two percent of Americans say they would be inclined to eat Idaho potatoes over potatoes from other states1.
Potatoes versus sweet potatoes
Potatoes and sweet potatoes share some similarities. Both are grown underground; planted in the spring, grown in the summer, and harvested in the fall; can be stored all year; and are most popular in the fall and winter seasons around Thanksgiving and Christmas—and around Easter, too. This is where the similarities end, though.
Sweet potatoes aren’t actually a part of the potato family at all. Potatoes are part of the nightshade family (with eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers), while sweet potatoes are part of the morning glory family. Potatoes want to live in the cold, and sweet potatoes want to bask in the warmth. Potatoes can be mechanically harvested, while sweet potatoes need to be hand-harvested for maximum quality and shelf life. When sweet potatoes first come out of the ground, they have a very thin skin and are easily damaged if handled too roughly.
Once harvested, sweet potatoes are brought to a storage room and put through a curing process. Just like a good wine, these vegetables need to age before being eaten for maximum flavor. It takes approximately 4 to 6 weeks to properly cure a sweet potato. Curing is what gives North Carolina sweet potatoes more flavor and a longer shelf life.
Approximately 60% of the sweet potatoes in the United States come from North Carolina, making it the largest producer of sweet potatoes. Similar to Idaho potatoes, North Carolina sweet potatoes are frequently asked for by name. Domestic consumption of sweet potatoes per capita is at an all-time high, at 7.5 pounds, largely because of their many healthy benefits. Sweet potatoes are low in calories, high in vitamins A and C, rich in fiber, and made of complex carbohydrates—so no sugar highs or lows to worry about. The rising consumption of sweet potatoes isn’t limited to the United States, either.
Sweet potatoes in Europe
My first experiences with exports to Europe was in 2004. To help make a place for ourselves in the export market, the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission organized a group of grower/shippers to take an educational field trip to London. At that first trade show, so many attendees looked at our sweet potatoes with puzzled looks on their faces. They simply hadn’t seen sweet potatoes before. They didn’t know how to eat them, much less prepare them, and had no clue about their health benefits.
We’ve grown significantly since our first venture into Europe. North Carolina sweet potatoes now hold roughly 65% share of the European market and are consumed in 45% of UK households. We’re seen as the premium variety in Europe, much like our Idaho potatoes are seen domestically. Our sweet potatoes have a better flavor, better profile, and better shelf life than many of the sweet potatoes that are starting to be cultivated in Europe.
Helping to fuel this growth has been our strategic relationship with Robinson Fresh. They approached us with the idea, which would allow us both to bring the best of what we have to offer to the marketplace. We brought our deep expertise in sweet potatoes and our long and rich history of growing potatoes in the United States to the relationship. Robinson Fresh brought their logistics knowledge and the ability to develop an efficient supply chain from door to door, an especially important attribute given the distance between our farms and the new markets we were targeting. With over 1,100 employees in 19 European countries speaking 26 different languages, they certainly understand the European consumer.
We set up a number of large meetings with retailers, wholesalers, and service providers. We met with a few groups who were responsive to having Americans talking about an American product. We went to trade shows and we got to know the distribution channels because they’re very different than the U.S. market. We did targeted promotions, worked with chefs to help popularize the vegetable, and had a huge effort in helping consumers understand sweet potatoes. At that time, only 2% of households in the UK purchased them.
A big reason why Europeans weren’t familiar with sweet potatoes is because they’re considered a tropical item. They need heat and warmth to grow and achieve maximum yields—a type of climate that isn’t typical in many parts of Europe. For this reason, sweet potatoes are still considered an exotic item in Europe. That makes it harder to find sweet potatoes in retail stores; when they can be found, they often sit on very limited shelf space. However, over the past five years, we’ve seen grocers gradually move sweet potatoes from their exotic sections to their potato section, and that has helped sales.
Enjoy your potatoes and sweet potatoes this month—and all year long! Visit our recipe page for delicious ideas for using potatoes.
1. Source: 2014 Kelton. www.keltonglobal.com