Demand has risen significantly for California sweet potatoes.
“It’s skyrocketed. Especially in packaged items and trays with mixed baby varieties, etc. Those seems to be really big this year,” says Dustin Robinson with Yagi Brothers Produce in Livingston, CA. “Anything that’s prepackaged and ready to go and throw into the microwave is doing well.” In turn, he notes that the interest in packaged product has put a strain on packaging supplies. “It usually takes five to six weeks for bags and now it can take up to 26 weeks for bags,” he says.
COVID-19 of course likely largely factors into this pick up in demand. “More people are experimenting with other varieties of sweet potatoes such as the Japanese sweet potatoes than they ever have before,” says Robinson. “People are experimenting more and I think trying to mimic the dishes they’ve had at their favourite restaurants or seen on a cooking show.”
More interest in organics
For Yagi Brothers, what’s particularly grown is its organic program, sold under its Sun Natural brand. “We’ve seen a lot more people look for organic this year compared to last year. Again, I think it’s because people are cooking at home and not going out to restaurants,” says Robinson. He also notes while retail demand has increased significantly to absorb the offset from the lack of foodservice demand, the growth is continuing. “There’s double digit growth there and we hadn’t been seeing double digit growth in foodservice,” he adds.
What lies ahead now is the question: what will Thanksgiving demand look like? “We’re hedging our bets on whether it’s going to be a normal Thanksgiving or whether we’ll see a huge increase with more people cooking meals at home for smaller groups of people,” says Robinson. “I think the volume will be larger because it may be a bunch of people buying a 5 lb. box rather than one person buying a 20 lb. box.”
Delayed harvest this year
Meanwhile, harvesting the California crop this season is somewhat behind. “There were a lot of hotter days this year and the evening temperatures were cooler than normal. This did slow down growth, so things were being left in the ground a little longer,” he says, noting harvest will likely wrap up in the next week or two.
That said, the crop sizes look good—orange and red sweet potatoes look to have similar crops to last year while Japanese and other varieties have somewhat lighter crops. “Those ones you’ll see some shortages on earlier compared to last year,” says Robinson. Sizing also looks better this year with more #1 retail sizing available this year.
As for pricing, prices may move up. “The cost of business has gone up dramatically with labor expenses and the costs of personal protective equipment (PPE),” says Robinson. He notes that pricing is stronger on organics compared to conventional this year. “We’re going to try and hold onto pricing as long as we can through to the New Year. The labor and PPE costs could throw a wrench into that because along with the costs associated with COVID-19, minimum wage goes up again at the beginning of the year,” says Robinson.