EAGLE, Idaho—Sweet potatoes aren't just for holidays any more, and that has Idaho potato growers a little concerned.
Sales of french fries made from sweet potatoes are soaring and some fast-food restaurants are selling them on a test basis. The trend picked up momentum last fall when ConAgra Foods Lamb Weston opened a new facility in Louisiana designed specifically to process sweet potatoes into fries, tater tots and related products.
"There are some very big potato processors getting involved with making fries from sweet potatoes," said Idaho Potato Commission President and CEO Frank Muir. "I think Idaho growers are paying attention to that."
IPC Commissioner Jim Tiede said growers aren't overly worried over the trend. But, he added, the industry does want to stay on top of the issue and be in a position to respond, if necessary.
"We're aware of this issue and we're keeping an eye on it," said Tiede, who grows spuds near American Falls in the eastern part of the state.
ConAgra officials say while sweet potato sales are soaring -- the company is selling two-and-a-half times more sweet potato products to restaurants now than five years ago -- spud growers shouldn't be concerned about the company's commitment to white potatoes, which remains strong.
Sweet potato fry sales are equivalent to less than 2 percent of the overall white potato fry market, said Mark Hayden, senior vice president of sales for ConAgra.
Hayden said ConAgra views sweet potato fries as a way to increase total fry sales, not as a way to replace fries made from white potatoes.
"We really view them as a secondary option to give consumers another choice on the menu," he said. "Why do restaurants have so many different choices of beverages if one will do? We take the same approach with the french fry category."
The company is trying to take advantage of the fact consumers love new options, added Marti DeMoss, ConAgra's communications manager.
"It is not an either-or thing," she said. "It's a sweet potato option and a white potato option as well. I don't think you can ever take away the passion people have for white potato french fries and other potato products."
Hayden said sweet potato fries are being sold on a test basis in some fast-food restaurants, including Carl's Jr., Hardee's and Burgerville, a regional chain with 39 locations in Oregon and Washington.
He said consumers seem to view sweet potatoes as a healthy food, which is part of the reason for their increasing popularity.
ConAgra has processed sweet potatoes at two of its Idaho plants for years, Hayden said, even though they must be shipped in from other places. Sweet potatoes need a longer growing season and warmer nights than regular potatoes.
A few Idaho potato growers have started growing test plots of sweet potatoes to see if they can be grown in the Gem State, but those growers have asked to remain anonymous, IPC officials say.
-Source, Sean Ellis, Capital Press