Sweet potato sales are popping. The Packer’s 2012 Fresh Trends report shows 49% of customers purchased sweet potatoes last year, up from 44%.

Charles Walker, executive secretary for the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, Columbia, S.C., attributes this growth to a greater knowledge of the health benefits sweet potatoes offer.

"Even pet food companies are beginning to use sweet potatoes because of their nutritional value," Walker said.

Acreage has increased for the past several seasons, but growers don’t expect huge growth this year.

Growers have to find the right balance between the growing export and processed demand with domestic sales.

According to Walker, 132,600 acres of sweet potatoes were harvested in 2011. North Carolina made up 65,000 of those acres.

Rene Simon, executive director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission, Baton Rouge, predicts acreage may grow this year but not to the extent it has been growing.

"We may see a slight bump in acres, but I’m not expecting a tremendous growth," Simon said.

Kendall Hill, co-owner of Tull Hill Farms, Kinston, N.C., said he thinks acreage, will be down this year overall. Tull Hill plans to continue planting about 750 acres.

"Last year there was a tremendous increase in acreage but it hasn’t panned out for a lot of people," Hill said.

Ed Odron, owner of Odron Produce Marketing & Consulting, Morada, Calif., disagrees.

"The popularity is growing. I honestly think we should keep looking at opportunities to increase acreage," Odron said.

Jimmy Burch Sr., partner in Burch Farms, Faison, N.C., said they had the biggest crop they have ever had in 2011, and they’re going to move it all.

"Demand is great, but prices are a little cheaper," Burch said.

On Feb. 28, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $14-16 for 40-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 orange sweet potatoes, down from $16-17 at this time last year.

Still, growers and shippers remain optimistic.

"Prices need to be a little higher because of fuel and chemicals, but I think prices will go up after Easter," said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributions Inc., Faison.

"Prices are firm. They seem to be a little less than last year by maybe a dollar, but movement is still doing well," said George Wooten, owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C.

"Hopefully we’ll have an increase when we have to turn on the coolers. I think inventories will indicate that we’ll be able to do that," said Thomas Joyner, president of Nash Produce, Nashville, N.C.

The biggest variable for the upcoming season is the weather.

"My biggest concern right now is that we are extremely dry going into the spring, so hopefully we’ll get some more rain," Precythe said.

Still, most agree the future for the sweet potato industry as a whole is bright.

"The industry is in a rapid phase of growth. Per-capita consumption is up more than 35% over the last five years," said Tara Smith, coordinator of the Louisiana AgCenter Sweet Potato Research Station, Chase.