Young mothers and pregnant women helped give birth to the growing market for organic sweet potato in the United States, says Sandi Kronick, CEO of Eastern Carolina Organics (ECO).
While she jokes that “kale pays the bills”, Kronick said sweet potatoes are the next most important item for ECO in terms of both value and volume, followed closely by blueberries.
Based in Durham, North Carolina, the farmer- and employee-owned firm markets and distributes wholesale Carolina organic farm produce to retailers, restaurants and buying clubs along the US east coast, even reaching Canada in the north and as far south as Florida. Now ten-years-old, it expects turnover of US$4 million this year, up from $3.8 million last year – all from sales within North America and about a fifth from sweet potatoes.
Baby food has long provided major demand for sweet potato and Kronick said demand for the organic version has delivered greater demand for organic sweet potato. “A lot of organic sweet potato acres go to baby food,” she said. Even so, she said less than 5 percent of total sweet potato production in the US is currently organic.
Kronick said ECO is also seeing a lot of growth – with increases in value but not necessarily volumes – in greenhouse tomatoes, in particular, and in greenhouse cucumbers and lettuce.
Exports to the UK, France and the Netherlands
One of the about 100 farms that ECO works with is Triple J Produce, located in Sims, North Carolina, which predominantly grows sweet potatoes and has about 1,000 acres of conventional cultivation for this crop and 100 acres of organic.
Sales manager Kristi Hocutt said that despite the higher costs, such as due to non-chemical weed control, the company has been increasing its organic production “because customers have been asking for it.”
Triple J supplies stores including Whole Foods in the US and exports sweet potatoes to European countries including the UK, France and the Netherlands, mainly in 6kg and 18kg boxes.
Its own sweet potato production this year will be 800,000 bushels, along with an additional 400,000 from partner growers, of which 65,000 bushels will be organic. Its 2013 crop was 500,000 bushels, of which 38,000 were organic.