Los Angeles Times
MERCED COUNTY, Calif. — Bouncing down a dirt road, past emerald fields thick with sweet potato plants, farmer Robert Garcia hunched over the steering wheel of his pickup and grinned with glee.
It's the beginning of harvest season and, once again, his bounty of orange- and yellow-fleshed roots is looking promising.
"You used to see cotton fields and grapevines out here," said Garcia, 54, whose family grows and packs sweet potatoes out of their central California farm operations.
"Now the talk is 'sweet potatoes; sweet potatoes; how can I get more sweet potatoes?' "
Forget the marshmallows and the Thanksgiving buffet table. The sweet potato has become a year-round food.
In the past decade, Americans have more than doubled their consumption of the thin-skinned vegetable, according to the United States Sweet Potato Council: U.S. consumers, per capita, now wolf down 6.2 pounds of sweet potatoes each year.
Diners overseas, too, have developed a fondness for it. U.S. farmers exported 200.3 million pounds of sweet potatoes in 2010, up from 38.5 million pounds in 2000, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service.
Here in the United States, sweet potatoes are showing up at presidential state dinners and on White Castle's menu. They're cropping up in soup bowls, eating up shelf space in grocery store chip aisles, and piling up high in french fry baskets.
Garcia sees nothing but potential for growth. Ten years ago, he and his family farmed 240 acres of sweet potatoes in Turlock, Calif., and surrounding areas. Today, they've expanded that to 400 acres and opened a packing plant in Livingston, Calif.
Although traditional white potatoes still dominate the potato market, doctors and weight-loss groups touted the benefits of whole roasted sweet potatoes — which are higher in fiber and Vitamin A than traditional white potatoes, and lower on the glycemic index.
Yet it was cooks' slicing up sweet potatoes and dunking them into a deep fryer that fed the public demand.
The number of restaurants offering sweet potatoes has grown 14 percent in the past three years, according to a survey of 704 restaurant menus conducted by Chicago-based market research firm Technomic Inc. Much of that increase comes from restaurants featuring sweet potato fries.
Packaged-food giant ConAgra Foods, seeing a lucrative market, opened a new $156 million plant in Louisiana this year devoted to processing sweet potatoes into frozen fries and other products.
"If you're in the restaurant business, you know the country is changing to healthier selections, or selections seen as being healthier," said Harry Balzer of the NPD Group, a market research firm that has been tracking U.S. eating habits for more than three decades.
"So restaurants are looking for a new version of something the public already loves: the typical french fry. … If companies can set up the same infrastructure for processing sweet potatoes that they have for (white) potatoes for french fries, the market could be huge."