Sweet potatoes and I go way back. As a kid, my favorite variety was purple and came from Okinawa, Japan, and I would gobble it down from dawn till dusk. My dad would microwave one up and toss it in my lunch bag, so as other kids were chowing down on boring or generic treats, I would have a bright purple tuber to gnaw on—and I couldn’t have been happier. After my indoctrination into the produce industry, my eyes were opened to just how vast and intriguing the world of sweet potatoes could be. I had to know more.
“As people continue to look for healthier options, more and more are adding sweet potatoes to their diets. Sweet potatoes are a cheap, easy, and healthy vegetable that is available all year,” Tami Long, Nash Produce’s Director of Marketing and Business Development, tells me. “Their sweetness makes them an excellent alternative to sugar. And, well, sweet potatoes are sweet! How can you not like a sweet vegetable? Consumer demand continues to grow for sweet potatoes, and it does not show any signs of slowing down.”
Neither a farm nor a grower, Nash Produce is a packinghouse for sweet potatoes, which are then shipped directly to retailer and foodservice depots and processors. The company was founded in 2006 by farmers who were passionate about growing quality produce but wanted to shift their focus away from business-side operations. So, Nash Produce was established to handle the selling, marketing, processing, packing, and shipping, allowing the farmers it partners with to focus on farming.
“The farmer brings the sweet potatoes straight from the field. Within hours of harvest, the sweet potatoes are put in curing houses where they will remain for up to a week. From there, they are moved to storage where they remain until an order comes in. At that time, the sweet potatoes are washed, sorted, packed, and set up to ship,” Tami comments.
Nash Produce only ships sweet potatoes grown in North Carolina—a state with soil and a climate ideal for growing sweet potatoes with a taste that rivals other growing regions, Tami tells me. I learned that most North Carolina sweet potato farmers also grow tobacco, rotating the crops so the soil stays fertile and nutrient rich.
The company truly outdoes itself with its buyer relationships as well, because Nash Produce considers itself a true partner. Not content to just make a sale and drop off product, the company puts real elbow grease into working with buyers to grow the category.
“Nash Produce provides superior customer service. While we strive to ship the highest quality product, we are here to solve any problems that may occur,” Tami says. “Basically, we work to keep any sweet potato problems off our customers’ desks. Nash Produce is here to help retailers and foodservice buyers think outside the box. We can provide new and exciting ways to connect with their customers. Nash Produce doesn’t just ship sweet potatoes, we are here to partner with companies.”
Although I was content to happily munch on my Okinawan sweet potato as a kid in the ’90s, not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the category. Most relegated the sweet potato to holiday dishes and pies, unaware of the vegetable’s versatility. But then came the great health wave, where consumers began to prioritize healthy living, starting with the foods they ate. Shoppers soon learned about the vast array of uses for sweet potatoes. No longer trapped in a side dish, sweet potatoes have taken a top spot on the list of nutritious and adaptable fruits and veg.
However, as public perception of sweet potatoes continues to shift, it seems as though more and more consumers are thinking of the vegetable as a staple—not a bad development, except that many shoppers are expecting lower prices, despite the often specialty status of the product. This dynamic has, unfortunately, trickled down to the grower level.
“Retailers are demanding lower prices, but if the farmers are not making money, they will plant something else,” states Tami. “I find it fascinating that consumers balk at paying an extra twenty cents per pound for produce, but they will spend 1,000 dollars on a phone. The better you eat, the healthier you are and the less you will visit the doctor’s office. People need to look at the costs in this way.”
"Basically, we work to keep any sweet potato problems off our customers’ desks."
—Tami Long, Director of Marketing & Business Management
Retailers, understandably, want to keep their customers happy, but, as Tami explains to me, the prices they seek out can end up inhibiting production.
“The problem is that the price point that retailers are demanding is not sustainable for all parties,” she says. “In 2018, many farmers in North Carolina did not plant sweet potatoes because they were not making a profit. This reduced acreage and two hurricanes hitting North Carolina has caused a shortage of sweet potatoes in 2019. Raising the price of sweet potatoes by ten to twenty cents per pound would keep the acreage at a level that would maximize quality product. Costs are increasing for farmers—labor, shipping, packaging, processing, etc. They cannot meet these costs if the price of sweet potatoes continues to decrease.”
Still, despite some issues with pricing, Nash Produce’s sweet potato program is going strong—the company offers a range of varieties, including Bonita, Murasaki, and conventional and organic Covingtons. Nash Produce is also promoting its new tray packs that were introduced to the Mr. Yam line this year. The three- to four-pack design features innovative packaging meant to increase the convenience of cooking sweet potatoes, making it that much easier for consumers to integrate the vegetable into their daily routine.
“The unique aspect is that you put the entire package into the microwave, and in less than ten minutes you have a side dish for multiple people,” explains Tami. “Several friends tested the packaging and reported that these were some of the best sweet potatoes they have had. The tray and plastic covering steamed them to perfection.”
And just because Mr. Yam sweet potatoes are so convenience-focused doesn’t mean the company has let taste fall by the wayside. In fact, as Tami tells me, taste is what makes consumers come back for more—and the testimonials prove it.
“I had a woman call from Florida to tell me that she had bought some of our Mr. Yam sweet potatoes,” she says. “Her husband had worked in Mississippi sweet potato fields most of his life. She wanted me to make sure that we keep shipping to her store because her husband said that our sweet potatoes were the best he ever had!”
But it’s not always enough to let the products speak for themselves. Even though the market for sweet potatoes has seen an uptick, there can still be pushback from consumers who have a set expectation in their minds about what sweet potatoes are, without knowing about the wide range of flavors and textures that the various sweet potato varieties provide.
“Some people—a sizeable portion of those, kids—do not like the orange sweet potatoes because they have a stringy texture. The white and purple sweet potatoes have a firmer consistency. In fact, white sweet potatoes look similar to regular baked potatoes, but they are healthier! We need to do a better job informing consumers of their options,” Tami comments.
To truly enrich the category, a significant amount of consumer outreach is required to educate the public on the benefits of sweet potatoes and how to use them. This is why Nash Produce is active in the community, participating in nutrition fairs at local schools and School Ecology Day with Nash county. Tami personally gives presentations at schools, Rotary Clubs, the Boys and Girls Club, and women’s networking groups, to name a few. Though Nash Produce takes an active role when it comes to consumer education, Tami acknowledges that retailers also need to reach out to their customers, as they occupy a unique space in the supply chain.
“If retailers want to get foot traffic back to their stores, they need to give consumers a reason to come in. Learning how to incorporate healthy foods in their diets is a great idea. Whether with demos or just in the produce department talking to customers, connecting with the shopper is key,” Tami stresses. “Retailers can provide items, but they can also give a service that consumers cannot get from online ordering—face-to-face interaction.”
It seems as though any time I log on to Pinterest, it’s sweet potato-this and sweet potato-that, so I know Tami is right when she tells me that as consumers are evolving to crave more health-conscious fare, so too does the category grow.
Retailers who embrace this evolution and support their produce programs will place themselves ahead of the curve, and who better to take along for the ride than Nash Produce? The company remains a valuable partner and asset to those looking to ride the health craze wave by incorporating sweet potatoes into their departments as star players.