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Homegrown sweet potato from the Low Countries

The sweet potato is on the rise in the Low Countries. Sales opportunities are increasing, because consumers are discovering more and more options for the potato look-alike. Those with more knowledge of the crop know it’s not a potato but a tropical radical tuber. Growers in the Benelux countries still have to find out if the crop can be profitable in cold soils. Sweet potatoes are grown on a large scale for export in Louisiana and North Carolina, where ground temperatures are much higher. 

Grower Wim Bossaert from Poperinge, Belgium, is pioneering the sweet potato for the second year in a row. Results have been positive so far. Wim wants to continue with the crop, in any case. “I haven’t reached my final destination yet. This year I’m at the break even point. I’m now thinking about how to work next season. I’ve got profits on my mind.” This year, Wim had 44,000 plants, which have a promising harvest. “Yield isn’t too bad, and quality exceeds expectations. The coming period should show how sweet potatoes hold up in storage. All in all, I feel quite positive.” Wim will plant more next season. He has partially taken care of sales, but not yet for the expansion. He’s willing to take that risk. “I firstly want to focus on the agronomy. Sales will be up for discussion again at a later stage,” he says.

Local as value
Wim: “Sales can go either way. I’m talking to all channels. Both retail and large-scale industry are interested, and I don’t yet know which market player I’ll produce for. We are still communicating about requirements and desires. My current customer comes from the processing industry. Last week they came to assess the harvest, and it turns out to be a qualitatively good processable product that is not inferior to the imports. The processor is now looking into how much value is added, if any, by marketing the product as local.”

Pioneering means taking risks. Now that sweet potatoes can also be grown in the Benelux, the way has been cleared for optimisation and high returns, both in the Netherlands by knowledge institute Delphy and the Belgische Provinciaal Proefcentrum voor de Groenteteelt Oost-Vlaanderen (PCG). Wim is part of the user group that was started by PCG as part of the project ‘Successful expansion of growing sweet potatoes in Flanders.’ They received subsidies from the Flemish government and a number of supply chain partners for a four-year research. This was started on 1 October, according to Annelien Tack form the PCG. “We will research various aspects in coming years, such as choice of varieties, raising plants, growing method (covered or open cultivation, and added value of irrigation), mechanisation, storage (in cooperation with the Interprovinciaal Proefcentrum voor de Aardappelteelt), and the practical value (appearance, flavour and content components). There’s extensive interest and we want to represent the entire chain in the user group, to hear from all the different links what their interests are and what they expect from the product.” The Dutch are also involved in this, including Cor van Oers from Delphy and Joep van de Bool, a grower from the very beginning, from Tuinderij De Waog. In 2015, the first sweet potatoes were harvested there, and they are members of the user group. 

Belgium is investing considerably in sweet potatoes because, among other things, the Belgian import gradually increased in recent years, and in the past year, it even increased sharply. “Supermarket chains also confirm the sales of sweet potatoes are increasing. According to them, it’s not just a trend, it’ll last,” Annelien says. Delphy has also been researching the possibilities of sweet potatoes since 2014. “We have a network of mostly growers in the South Netherlands. We have 29 participants in total, which amounts to 25 hectares.” In the Netherlands, the cultivation and sales developments aren’t subsidised by the government. Delphy’s research mostly focuses on the growing aspects, and is privately financed by companies that are members of the knowledge network for sweet potatoes and Delphy.

Although sweet potatoes appear to be promising golden mountains, grower Wim remains sober. “Demand for this vegetable is enormous, but that doesn’t mean it’s all roses. Sweet potatoes can be bought globally, and that has to be kept in mind. I took a risk, and I hope to break even. Next year, I hope to take a step forwards. It requires a lot of time, and you have to keep schooling yourself. It’s a young cultivation that’s still free of diseases, but I’d recommend everyone to start with pure plant material. That way, you’ll be rewarded at the end of the season.”

Taming crops
Wim is a young player in horticulture. However, he’s unafraid of the adventure because he has a background as a master of agricultural science. His roots, and that of his family, are in a mixed company with pig farming and classic arable farming (potatoes, sugar beets, wheat, corn and beans) on 100 hectares. He took over the pig farm from his parents, but decided to change direction during the peak years of the crisis. “I had to invest to keep up (with the pig farm), but I chose not to – demand for meat is showing a declining trend, in part due to the climate debate and issues surrounding animal welfare. Considering my background, that was an emotional decision. It’s also becoming increasingly more difficult to make a profit with classic agricultural crops, so I started looking for innovations, such as (fibre) hemp, quinoa, wine-growing, and more. Last year, someone suggested I grow sweet potatoes. I was able to learn about the subject in a short period of time, and after a test I saw the crop doing well here. Perhaps we always underestimated it, and thought it was a tropical crop that couldn’t be grown in Northwestern Europe, but that was also said about courgettes and corn. We also managed to ‘tame’ those crops, and they are now produced here successfully. Sweet potatoes will be a new leg for my company to stand on.”

For more information:
Wim Bossaert

Proefcentrum voor de Groenteteelt Oost-Vlaanderen
Annelien Tack

Cor van Oers

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