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The demand for sweet potatoes has not waned in Europe as summer dawns. Some markets are switching to more local production with lower priced imports from Egypt dominating in many markets. The African country has seen increased demand from many markets, while it also has strong local demand. Local producers in France are complaining about the lower priced Egyptian sweet potatoes.

Brazilian producers have had to discard a lot of sweet potatoes due to damage to the skin of the product caused by pests following drought conditions earlier this year. Although exports to Europe continued, Brazil sent lower volumes with the damaged products going to their local market instead. In Spain, although after the rains the forecasts seem better than they were at the beginning of the year, the trend of sweet potato surface areas in Andalusia is downward due to the issue of water. In recent years Germany has seen an increase in sweet potato cultivation. Switzerland's peak of their imports may now have been passed. At just under 5,900 tonnes, more sweet potatoes were imported in 2021 than ever before. During both 2022 and 2023, this import volume fell for the first time, but remains at a high level.

French producers faces strong Egyptian competition this year. The French season for Egyptian sweet potatoes is drawing to a close. Egypt, Spain, Portugal and Israel currently remain on the French market. In Italy prices are kept constant throughout sales campaign. Sweet potato production is also experiencing a period of growth in Italy. The Netherlands is seeing reduced supply from Egypt, which drives up prices of sweet potatoes. The Dutch are also receiving supplies from North America. They noted the quality of produce from Egypt and North America is inferior this season, with significant variations between batches.

North America could see a shorter season on sweet potatoes with the majority of production in North Carolina that could end up being short this year. In South Africa producers and exporters are upbeat about export opportunities after two difficult years, with a very strong market pull this year. Heavy rain over much of the country has slowed the pace of harvesting of sweet potatoes in some areas.

Egypt: Sharp increase in acreage due to good prices
The Egyptian sweet potato season ended in February. It started with a sharp increase in acreage due to the good prices obtained the previous season. This led to an oversupply at the start of the season, prompting a large number of growers to suspend harvesting. A grower says, "The start of the season in August began with very good prices, which then fell due to abundant volumes. The usual demand was not high enough to absorb all these volumes, so prices fell. Between August and December, prices continued their waltz, and experienced a second big drop in December."

Most Egyptian exporters have exhausted their stocks in January. Prices improved in January thanks to the pickup in demand from the Netherlands and the UK. For example, the price of L1 size was 3.75 euros per kilo in December and has risen to 5 euros in January.

Competition worked in Egypt's favor, the grower says: "The United States has different calendars to us. Spain has technical problems in the sweet potato sector, as well as a problem of profitability. Other competitors, such as Croatia and Portugal, have low volumes or very short seasons."

Most popular varieties remain unchallenged: Bellevue and Beauregard. The biggest customers for Egyptian sweet potatoes were the Netherlands, the UK and France.

Spain: Less crop area in Andalusia
Although after the rains the forecasts seem better than they were at the beginning of the year, "the trend of sweet potato surface area in Andalusia is downward due to the issue of water," they explain from a nursery specialized in sweet potato plants. "This year we have only started to take out plants in quantity from April 4, when normally we should have started in March."

"On the other hand, we are having more clients from the Alicante area and, in the search for new areas to grow sweet potatoes, we are also seeing how there are more and more producers who are going to cultivate land in Portugal." As for varieties, "we see that the white sweet potato is being grown in greater quantities this year, because last year it had good prices in the market and in the field, although still in a much smaller proportion than the traditional varieties. For the national market, the California variety continues to be worked, which is the one most consumed in Spain fresh and, in a format that is increasingly popular, the roasted sweet potato, while for the export market Covington and Beauregard are mostly grown".

"In Europe in general, the trend in the area under cultivation of sweet potatoes seems to be in line with that of other years, as we see through our export clients; Where we have already noticed the most and we are going to notice this drop in the surface will be in Andalusia. With this outlook, everything indicates that the price of sweet potatoes could be quite good."

Germany: Domestic sweet potato cultivation is gaining ground
In recent years, the sweet potato cultivation is gaining ground in Germany. Recently, the cooperative Reichenau has invested a lot in their storage capacities for organic sweet potato. "60 per cent of German organic sweet potato cultivation takes place here and is represented by our grower Mr Wagner. Accordingly, we also have a large volume that we have to place in food retailers throughout Germany." All investments should bear fruit, especially in the second half of the season, Müller continues. "Our aim is to guarantee a year-round supply this year thanks to our modern storage capacities. We strongly believe that the last domestic competitors will disappear from the market in March and April, which is why customers outside southern Germany will also increasingly access our goods. This is also necessary, as we cannot move the volume produced here in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg alone."

Switzerland: Peak of imports may now have been passed
At just under 5,900 tonnes, more sweet potatoes were imported in 2021 than ever before. During both 2022 and 2023, this import volume fell for the first time, but remains at a high level. However, the peak of imports may now have been passed, according to the Agricultural Information Service LID. This is probably also related to the increase in volume from domestic cultivation by the Batati GmbH cooperative. "Once again, the warm summer has had a positive effect on the development of sweet potatoes in Switzerland," says Christian Hurni from Batati GmbH. The first trial digs were carried out at the end of August and the harvest then started at the beginning of September. "The beautiful, mild and, above all, dry autumn weather played right into our hands."

France: Strong Egyptian competition this year
The French season for Egyptian sweet potatoes is drawing to a close. Egypt, Spain, Portugal and Israel currently remain on the market. Although the campaign got off to a good start with "a strong appeal for the French origin at the beginning of the season and commitments from French retailers", from mid-December onwards, foreign competition put French sweet potatoes at a disadvantage, especially from Spain and Egypt. While the French origin is highly sought-after by consumers, the priority today is price, and price differences between French and Egyptian sweet potatoes are significant.

"The price can sometimes double. Some foreign sweet potatoes are sold for less than 1 euro 50. So French producers find it hard to compete. In fact, this year's Christmas promotions lasted a month longer than usual, to the detriment of French products. French producers are worried. They want prices to remain higher than import prices, because yields are still lower and labor costs too high compared with foreign competitors.

Italy: Prices kept constant throughout sales campaign
The sweet potato is also experiencing a period of growth in Italy. An operator in northern Italy explains that the 2023/24 sales campaign started at the end of August 2023 and ended on 31 March 2024. The product was of excellent quality, with two types on offer: bulk sales for the larger ones, and in 650g packs for the smaller ones. There were three sizes: L (large), M (medium) and S (small). For sizes M and S, the operator makes the packed trays. Prices are kept constant throughout the sales campaign. The bulk product is sold to retailers at around €1.50/kg and the packaged product at around €1.70/pack.

The director of a consortium in southern Italy said that the sweet potato project started in recent years would continue this year, with investment in the same areas as last season. He emphasised that the sweet potato crop brings many rewards, but stressed the need to improve agronomic practices in crop management and to focus on quality during storage.

At the wholesale level, on the Verona market, there are currently sweet potatoes of Egyptian origin, loose and first quality, at a prevailing price of €1.25/kg.

Netherlands: Reduced supply from Egypt drives up prices of sweet potatoes
The sweet potato market has witnessed an uptick in recent weeks. "Many Egyptian suppliers have finished their harvest, and this is immediately reflected in demand and pricing. Consequently, we rely on those Egyptian suppliers who can store their produce for a longer period, along with sweet potatoes from North America, although in lower quantities compared to previous years," shares a Dutch importer. He anticipates that sweet potatoes will remain scarce until the new season in Egypt kicks off this summer. Additionally, the trader notes that the quality of produce from both Egypt and America is inferior this season, although there are significant variations between batches.

Belgium: Sweet potato gains foothold, but supply limited
Sweet potatoes are becoming an increasingly sought-after product in Belgium, a trader explains. "In a country like Belgium, where traditional products such as ground chicory and salsify are still popular, certain 'new' products always have to find their place in the market for a while. You can see this in the convenience segment, products like ginger shoots, but also sweet potato. Still, you can see it starting to gain a foothold. It is a trendy product, with the processed variety in particular rising in demand. However, the market is a bit tougher at the moment, as supply is limited, driving up prices. We are working with Spanish product and the latest Egyptian sweet potatoes, but volumes are not holding up. You also see some growers in Belgium starting to grow sweet potatoes themselves, but there is still no way to compete with that on the world market."

North America: Could see shorter season on sweet potatoes
In North Carolina, where the majority of U.S. sweet potatoes are grown, the season could wind up being short this year. Three years ago, the state had planted approximately 105,000 acres–a number that dropped to roughly 85,000 acres the following year and then dropped again to about 75,000 acres this past growing season.

What also is factoring into this is that the industry started shipping the crop, which is a good quality one, in September last year. Typically shipping begins in October or at the beginning of November.

Meanwhile, the pull on the crop has been steady and the "valleys" that were normally seen in demand aren't happening, even post-Easter. It's even anticipated to stay somewhat steady through summer, a time when historically sweet potato demand would soften slightly.

With this, pricing is starting to increase and fewer promotions between now and the end of the crop year are anticipated. Looking ahead, planting on the 2024-2025 sweet potato crop could begin in about three weeks.

South Africa: Upbeat about export opportunities after two difficult years
Heavy rain over much of the country has affected the harvesting of sweet potatoes from the Brits area in the Northwest Province, where sweet potato growers have to wait for their heavy black turf to dry out, so they are not supplying municipal markets this week.

Growers from further north, in Limpopo Province, are still sending sweet potatoes but the price has nevertheless lifted. "You're looking at an 8kg premium quality box going for R120 [5.97 euros], that's around R15 [0.7 euro] per kilogram," says a Gauteng market agent. "That's a lot. If the Brits guys were in, prices would've been lower."

Amid the expensiveness of vegetables in general at the moment, sweet potatoes are still among the cheaper lines "but it's about to take a jump", he says.

At the Johannesburg fresh produce market prices between different units are between R6 (0.3 euro) and R12 per kilogram. On the export side, things are looking up after a "very difficult" past two years. US supplies in Europe and the UK are lower, creating opportunity for South African sweet potatoes grown in the areas mentioned above plus the Western Cape.

South Africa's export season run from March into June to the UK, Europe and the Middle East. "There's a very strong market pull in comparison to the past two years. There's definitely much less sweet potato on the market," a South African exporter says.

Brazil: Lack of rain causes skin damage leading to a lot of discarded product
Sweet potatoes production is currently high, but the appearance of the skin has been affected by some pests due to the lack of rains in the beginning of the year notes an exporter. "With the soil dried for months, microbacterias found water on the potatoes themselves, and the results is damages on it: holes and scratches on the skin. That's why currently we have to discard lots and lots of sweet potatoes, just to pack the minority of pieces with nice skin for export."

The local market in Brazil is supportive and helps to offset some of the losses due to lower export volumes at the moment.

Next week's topic: Oranges