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Improving the quality of sweetpotatoes

Publication date: 14 November 2022

The sweetpotato industry is working with growers, supply chain participants and retailers to lift quality

Quality is the main driver for buying sweetpotatoes for 63 per cent of Australian households, according to levy-funded research through the Hort Innovation Sweetpotato Fund investment Australian sweetpotato consumer insights research (PW18003).

Based on this research, there is a significant opportunity to shift ‘medium users’ (45 per cent of the sample) of sweetpotatoes to doubling their consumption. This group primarily buy sweetpotatoes on impulse, and quality will significantly impact their purchase behaviour. ‘Light users’ can also be influenced to increase purchases, but this can be addressed by improving their knowledge of sweetpotatoes and how to use them. A small shift in purchasing frequency in these two consumer segments could double consumption by these consumers.

A new Hort Innovation Sweetpotato Fund investment began in 2021 to improve the quality of sweetpotato across the industry by engaging key stakeholders across the value chain, including growers, wholesalers and retailers, so quality can be monitored and maintained in the long term.

Improving quality of sweetpotato across the industry supply chain (PW20000) is investigating pre- and post-harvest quality issues for Australian sweetpotatoes and is developing a business case for quality improvements in the supply chain. This is being explored through supply chain quality reviews on-farm in Queensland and at retail level in Victoria, mimicking a typical supply chain.

Industry adoption of the recommendations will be driven through direct engagement, newsletters and grower roadshows. The program will monitor the adoption of these recommendations by the sweetpotato industry.

Meet Matthew Prichard, sweetpotato grower from Cudgen, Northern NSW

Our industry was concerned about the quality of sweetpotatoes we saw in retail displays.

They weren’t up to the standard that we thought they should be, so we began to work with Hort Innovation on a levy-funded investment into improving the quality of sweetpotatoes across the industry supply chain. The ultimate aim of the project is to improve quality to drive sales.

There are three areas where you can experience problems that impact sweetpotato quality and can lead to consumer dissatisfaction – on-farm, during the supply chain and with retailers. This project works to align growers and supply chain participants such as transporters, agents, merchants and retailers. Getting on the same page and ensuring we’re driving in the same direction will help increase sales of sweetpotato through bringing new consumers into the category and encouraging existing consumers to buy more (increasing purchase frequency and average weight of purchase).

The first stage is about figuring out what’s happening on the shelf so that we can get a baseline on the standard of sweetpotatoes right now and understand what factors affect their quality. Our project partners, Kitchener Partners and Quality Associates, are collecting initial data instore across Coles, Woolworths, ALDI and independent supermarkets.

We’ve found so far that skin damage is the main factor causing issues on the shelf. These issues originate on-farm, so when we saw that information come through, we decided to put skin damage top of mind when making decisions. For example, gentle handling will be the top priority when we look to replace equipment through the harvesting process or the packing line.

The next thing we’ve found is that some temperature and humidity issues are occurring in the supply chain. It looks like the sweetpotatoes are experiencing significant changes in temperature, which can increase problems like bacterial pitting.

In response to this finding, the project has changed to include using almost a thousand trackers that will monitor location, temperature and humidity in real-time. This will tell us exactly where the problems are happening on-farm and along the supply chain. We’ve got five sweetpotato farms participating in that part of the program.

The retailer engagement component of the program is all about showing retailers what is happening on the shelf and providing them with strategies and solutions to improve their handling of sweetpotatoes. For example, a possible solution to some of the problems we’re facing would be to move sweetpotatoes into the banana supply chain because they have similar needs in terms of temperature management compared to standard potatoes, which can withstand lower temperatures.

The Hort Innovation Sweetpotato Fund has also invested in a project looking at causes and management strategies for skin loss in sweetpotatoes. These two projects will work together really well. The Causes and management strategies for skin loss in sweetpotatoes (PW21002) project is working with Louisiana State University, the world leader in sweetpotato research. Being able to leverage their knowledge and techniques will be hugely beneficial for our industry.

I’m looking forward to seeing how this project progresses and how I can change my methods on-farm to improve the quality of our sweetpotatoes. It’s all about figuring out where the issues are happening and addressing them. As a grower, I’m making efforts to provide better quality sweetpotatoes from the farm so that the retailer receives high-quality potatoes with less skin damage, stored in better temperature and humidity parameters, so that the customer will get the best sweetpotato experience they can.