While retail sales remain the biggest sweet potato purchaser, Wooten said the percentages of sales growth looks more impressive on the export side because growth appears bigger for a segment that started small.
“Someone the other day shared some information that in the last three years, sales in the U.K. have grown exponentially,” Wooten said. “Exports have an unlimited future because when you look at the market worldwide, there’s a lot of population there. It’s one of the fastest-growing categories we’ve had in the last three years.”
The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission Inc., Benson, helped generate overseas demand, Wooten said.
Tough early on
Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, said he was the first grower-shipper to ship sweet potatoes to Europe.
During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Precythe said he worked with a government buyer who worked the Faison deal during the summer procuring vegetables for the military.
Precythe said that buyer told him it would be nice to supply troops sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving and Easter.
Paul Nash told Precythe others who tried to send sweet potatoes to the United Kingdom encountered mold problems.
In 1984, Precythe shipped some potatoes to buyers in the United Kingdom, Germany and other places.
The shipments then took 30-40 days versus the 10-15 days the boat ride entails today, he said.
Precythe hired an international salesman who helped generate demand at Europe food shows and sales, he said, went crazy from there.
“There are still a lot of risks in the overseas market,” Precythe said. “There’s no PACA protection, and there’s more competition than there used to be. A lot of other countries are shipping.”
Belgium and Spain are also big U.S. sweet potato buyers.
Nash Produce Co., Nashville, exports a small volume of sweet potatoes.
Thomas Joyner, general manager, said exports aren’t a large market for Nash.
“Exports have grown, but not as rapidly as some of our other business” he said.
Nash trucks containers of sweet potatoes to load on ships in Norfolk, Va.