Just a few years ago, bagging machines sat idle in the packing shed most of the year.

Used only during peak times of the year — Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter — the return on investment moved at a glacial pace.

“It’s been a challenge to get it through the system,” said George Wooten, president and owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce, Chadbourn, N.C.

Wayne E. Bailey started bagging sweet potatoes in the 1990s.

“Just about anything we’ve done at Wayne E. Bailey has been an uphill battle,” Wooten said.

Luckily for shippers, bagged sweet potatoes now are a year-round program for many retailers.

Burch Farms, Faison, N.C., is putting in another bagging line, thanks to the increased demand, said Jimmy Burch, owner.

“The chain stores are wanting the 3-pound bags so we’re adding another,” he said. “We’ve already got two chains that use them year-round. There are some pretty serious volumes going through baggers.”

For Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls, Idaho, bagged business has gone up significantly, said Shane Watt, director of sweet potatoes.

“Our 3-pound bag sales have increased by about 200% over the last season,” he said.

The company, which markets under the Dole brand, is testing a 1-pound bag.

It would contain potatoes ranging from 3-9 ounces, Watt said, with 3-4 potatoes per bag.

The holiday push still drives bagged business, said Stewart Precythe, president of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc.

Bagged sweet potatoes make it easy for holiday meal planners to stop in the store and pick up enough potatoes for a big family meal.

“The bags are a big holiday item,” he said. “A lot of retailers like to advertise them, and the bag’s something you can easily pick up. A lot of people wouldn’t buy 5 pounds of sweet potatoes otherwise.”

Burch said his company started offering consumer bags about four years ago. Bags are a convenient outlet for small sizes as well, he said.

“It’s a price thing,” he said. “They use the 6-8 ounce potato and can drop the price per pound at the retail level.”

Wooten at Wayne E. Bailey said he’d rather see that price shift the other way.

It may not be popular,” he said. “But the demand should mean a higher price for bagged sweet potatoes during the holidays.”