The global sweet potato market continues to grow, as the tuber continues to gain traction on the European market in particular. Despite being relatively unknown on this market a number of years ago, according to reports it has a bright future as consumers become increasingly familiar with this formerly exotic veg. Countries such as Spain, the Netherland, Belgium, France, and Germany have even started their own cultivation. Although the volumes from countries such as the US are still unrivalled in Europe, domestic production plays into the trend of environmental awareness and local focus. On both the European and American markets, there are also opportunities in the processing industry for sweet potatoes. It’s not good news from every corner, however. The production of sweet potatoes in Spain dropped by 40% this year, due to lack of profitability and pressure from exporting countries. Germany has seen a dip in demand this year as consumers are increasingly feeling the effects of inflation, therefore opting out of buying non-staple items when shopping. Depending on how the economical situation develops over the course of 2023, this could spell further trouble for the sweet potato, if margins decrease significantly.
Netherlands: Sweet potato market stabilised, biggest growth in industry
There is no Christmas demand for sweet potatoes in the European market, according to a Dutch importer. "But it has never been a real item for Christmas, like lychees are, for example," he said. According to the importer, the market is fairly normal. "Prices are certainly not spectacular. Fortunately, the dollar rate has normalised a bit again. In general, we see that the European retail market is fairly saturated. The difference with years ago is that America has not had a monopoly for a long time. Besides North American supplies, a large supply of sweet potatoes comes from Egypt and Portugal. Supplies from Spain have declined somewhat, but here and there in the Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany, more and more local cultivation projects are being started. The big growth for sweet potatoes is currently not in the fresh market - which is fairly saturated - but in the industry. Those sales are growing fast and are actually only in their infancy."
Belgium: Bright future for Belgian sweet potato
The sweet potato is becoming increasingly established in Belgium. Local supply is also growing in this respect. "This season we can definitely compete, as it has been an ideal summer for the growth of this rather exotic product. We were able to achieve a nice production and people are trying to have year-round supply," says a Belgian grower and trader. "Nevertheless, the sweet potato market remains a global game, over which we Belgians have little influence. We are far from being able to match the volumes coming from, in particular, the United States. Yet people seem to be becoming increasingly aware of the climate impact of importing from such regions, so the popularity of the local product seems to be growing."
Consequently, there is no need to complain about demand at the moment, he assures. "Sweet potato is obviously a popular product, especially among the younger generation. Whether for the processing or fresh market. It is increasingly getting its place on Dutch shelves. For us, however, it is important that the demand for local product also grows. It is difficult to compete with cheaper foreign product, but we don't have to be the cheapest either. We therefore definitely see a good demand towards the holidays, where people like to experiment with the product in nice dishes with dinner. This results in good prices at the moment despite good supply. This is of course allowed, as costs in cultivation and storage have also risen extremely for sweet potatoes. Margins are getting tight, but the future is bright for this product."
Switzerland: Sweet potatoes increasingly popular
Just over 10 years ago, sweet potatoes were practically insignificant in the Swiss retail. Only 617,000 kg were imported. In 2021, the imported quantity was just under 5.9 million kg. Most of the goods are imported from the USA, followed by Spain and Egypt. A Swiss sweet potato cooperative reports a good harvest and an above-average yield due to the warm summer. "It is probably foreseeable that we will not reach the sales level of the past years, as more is being consumed outside the home than during the pandemic,” the cooperative stresses.
Germany: Consumers opt out of purchasing sweet potato
Egyptian sweet potatoes still dominate the German trade, but the marketing season is about to end. Meanwhile, the first shipments from Latin America, such as Honduras, are already arriving in some places. Due to abundant availability in Spain and Portugal as well as in Germany and the Netherlands, prices of Egyptian goods (mainly Beauregard and Bellevue) are under strong pressure. "Demand is also somewhat weaker compared to previous years, as the sweet potato is not a foodstuff for daily consumption and consumers are increasingly doing without superfluous articles. Sales are thus not progressing as fast as usual."
Italy: Disparity in production in Italian regions
It has been a good year for the sweet potato produced in Veneto, the Italian region with the highest production, along with Puglia and Lazio. An agronomist who monitors several local farms says that the yields have been very good with even higher sizes than in previous years. Thanks to the absence of rain, no diseases have spread. Harvesting took place from September to October and marketing began immediately. In Italy, the sweet potato is a niche item, but with a fair price. At a wholesale market in the Veneto region, on 19 December, they were sold at €1.10/kg. Storage is easy, between 5 and 12 °C. In winter, you may not need a cold store because these temperatures are normal in northern Italy. Production costs are not high: this tuber has no specific pests, so no treatment is needed. All that is needed is some mechanization to reduce labour costs.
The director of an important consortium in Calabria (southern Italy) reports: "After 24 months of trials, this year we are now in the middle of sweet potato production and processing, with a cultivation area of almost 40 hectares. From a production point of view, the campaign is far below expectations. Consequently, the commercial plans have also been scaled down: while we had planned to arrive in April-May, the product will instead only be available until January-February."
Spain: Pressure on Spanish sweet potatoes
The Spanish sweet potato acreage went down by 40% in 2022. The poor results of the previous year in terms of profitability discouraged growers from planting as much sweet potato. Although it has all been harvested, the growing and exporting companies are keeping most of their production in their storage rooms, waiting for the prices to go up as they are currently below the production costs, that have increased about 25% in just one year. Last year, Spanish sweet potatoes could begin to be profitable at prices above 75-80 cents but this year they should be at least between 1.00 to 1.05€ to cover the costs. The reason why the current prices on the markets are so low is the big supply and pressure from third producing countries as Egypt, Morocco and other origins in Latin America. At the same time, Central European countries such as France, the Netherlands, Belgium or the South of Germany have been increasing their production in recent years and they have currently enough local supplies as well as the third country availability at very aggressive prices.
North America: Opportunities in sweet potato processing
The sweet potato crop is well underway with good volume. “Supplies, quality and sizing are good. This year, we didn’t have a major weather event like we’ve had in the past several years so the crop sized up well,” says one North Carolina grower-shipper.
While its acreage hasn’t changed, it is rumoured that generally, acreage is down in North Carolina–a key sweet potato growing region in the U.S. The season also got a slightly later start this year by about a week and a half - harvest began in the beginning of September.
Meanwhile, demand is good for sweet potatoes. “The movement through Thanksgiving has been good. We were really pleased with how everything went and look forward to continuing to grow. We’re gearing up for Christmas,” says the grower-shipper, noting he anticipates movement to increase looking ahead.
At the same time, opportunities continue to emerge in sweet potato processing. “Processing follows along with the mindset of it follows how people are choosing to incorporate sweet potatoes into their diet. There are chips and fries but fresh-cut sweet potatoes are also being incorporated more and more on grocery store shelves because people are choosing the convenience factor that comes with that. That will only continue to grow,” he says.
As for pricing, the challenge is around increased costs that growers and shippers are incurring--unlike other goods and services, which have seen price increases to match those higher costs, the same isn't being seen in the sweet potato industry.
Australia: Australian growers focus on quality improvement
Australian sweet potato growers have been working on a number of research and development projects to lift the quality of the produce to, in-turn, increase demand and sales across Australia. In the recently released 2021/22 Annual Report, Hort Innovation highlighted that produce quality is the main driver for buying the vegetable for 63 per cent of Australian households. Skin damage was a major factor causing issues on the shelf, which are caused by on-farm issues, allowing growers to focus on packing equipment that handles the produce more gently. The next issue is that some temperature and humidity issues are occurring in the supply chain, which has already led to temperature trackers being used. The report also identified a significant opportunity to shift ‘medium users’ into doubling their consumption, with a direct correlation to quality.
Over the five years to 2020/21, Australia’s production grew at an average annual rate of 9.5 per cent in value and 6.4 per cent in volume. Of the 104,206 tonnes produced in 2020/21, 90 per cent was distributed as fresh supply (of which 78 per cent went into retail and 22 per cent into food service). On average, Australian households bought sweet potatoes 7.9 times in 2021/22 and 6.8 million Australian households purchased the vegetable in that year. There were also investments in the domestic marketing campaign focusing on the health benefits as well as taste and appearance.
We will be back again on January 5 with Global Market Overview Tomatoes!
Happy Holidays and see you next year!