Revised August 2018.
The sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas) is a native American plant found by Columbus and his shipmates, probably on the West Indies islands off the coast of Yucatan and Honduras. In colonial days, George Washington grew sweet potatoes on his Virginia farm. Years later, George Washington Carver developed over 100 different products from sweet potatoes, including an alternative to corn syrup. During World War I, the USDA used sweet potato flour to stretch wheat flour in baked goods.
Despite its name, the sweet potato is not related to the potato. Sweet potatoes belong to the morning glory family, while potatoes are members of the Solanaceae family, which also includes tomatoes, red peppers and eggplant. Sweet potatoes are tuberous roots and potatoes are actually swollen stems. Despite a physical similarity, sweet potatoes and yams are not related either. However, most yams marketed in the United States are actually sweet potatoes, with a relatively moist texture and orange flesh.
Widely established throughout the world, the sweet potato is a favorite staple of many cultures and is an ingredient in many ethnic cuisines. The leaves and flowers of a sweet potato plant are also edible and can be prepared in the same way one would prepare spinach. Sweet potatoes have become more popular in the U.S. in recent years with consumption increasing nearly 42 percent between 2000 and 2016, reaching 7.2 pounds per capita. Growing consumer demand for sweet potatoes may be due to the promotion of the tuber’s health benefits. Sweet potatoes are higher in beta carotene than many other vegetables and are a source of potassium, fiber, and vitamins A and C (USDA ARS 2012).
Most medium- to large-volume producers employ a sales agent who has sole responsibility to locate and contact buyers and to arrange transportation. The sales agent negotiates with the buyer over the time and place of delivery, the quantity to be sold and the price. For small-volume producers, marketing options may include direct sales to consumers and selling to local grocery stores, restaurants or local shipper-packers.
Sweet potatoes are a tropical, long season vegetables that grow best in long hot summers where they can get at least 150 frost-free days. Due to their growing requirements, sweet potatoes are primarily grown on a large commercial scale in the southern United States. Since 1971, North Carolina is the leading sweet potato production state, producing approximately 60 percent of all sweet potatoes grown in the country (ERS, 2015).
U.S. sweet potato production has increased substantially over the last 15 years. National production increased by an average of 6.1 percent per season since 2000, with a record high production of 31.54 million hundredweight in 2016 with an estimated value of $705.69 million. The increase in sweet potato production is due, in part, to an increase in acreage harvested from 95,000 acres in 2000 to 163,300 acres in 2016. Nationally yields have increased as well with the average sweet potato yield in 2016 at 20,300 pounds per acre.
In 2016, the U.S. season average farm price for sweet potatoes was $22.40 per hundredweight.
Based on most recent production and price averages, the estimated gross value per acre is approximately $4,550. The costs of production of sweet potatoes vary depending on region and farm size.