Over the past few years, sweet potatoes have risen in popularity among Canadian consumers. Ontario production meets just over 50 per cent of the province’s demand for the tubers. A recent report by the Greenbelt Foundation explains how local production could expand to meet 79 per cent of provincial consumption.
According to Plant the Seeds: Opportunities to Grow Southern Ontario’s Fruit and Vegetable Sector report, Ontario produces slightly more than 53,000 tonnes of sweet potatoes annually. Ontario retailers carry local sweet potatoes throughout the harvest and post-harvest season and then switch to imported produce for the rest of the year. Currently, imports from the United States dominate the market during the off-season and provide stiff competition even during Ontario’s harvest season.
So, how is the US so competitive in this market? With lots of suitable land and a long growing season in the southern states, the US is able to grow a significant excess of sweet potatoes—just over 3.0 billion pounds per year. This excess product is then exported to Canada, as well as to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands, at a competitive price-point. According to the report, in October 2019, the average Canadian import price on US sweet potatoes was $0.46/pound, whereas Canadian sweet potatoes averaged at over $0.50/pound on the market.
According to an article on greenhousecanada.com, one particular challenge for Canadian growers is their reliance on the US for slips. Sweet potatoes are a sub-tropical crop and so their slips must be planted in the spring in order to bring crops to maturity by the end of the fall. These slips are primarily grown in the southern US, then shipped into Ontario. Import charges associated with this adds a cost for Ontario growers not experienced by US growers. But this also presents an opportunity for Ontario greenhouse operators who could undertake growing local slips, generating new revenue, and ultimately leading to less reliance on imports from south of the border.