SPRING HOPE, N.C. — Export sales account for a large chunk of North Carolina sweet potato business.
Growers and packers say the segment remains healthy and is increasing demand.
Doug OhlemeierDaniel Bissett, president of Bissett Produce Co. Inc., Spring Hope, N.C., in a field of sweet potatoes in late August. Bissett says the season is bringing high quality and says quality is as high as he’s seen in the last decade. Vick Family Farms in Wilson sells about 30% of its crop to Europe, said Charlotte Vick-Ferrell, partner.
Vick-Ferrell said export demand has doubled since 2010.
“We have been experiencing strong growth for quite a few years now, and it’s a large part of our business,” she said. “The export part of the business is really growing.”
Vick-Ferrell said she participated in a 2004 European trade show and said she was surprised by how little Europeans knew about sweet potatoes.
Five years later, their knowledge began to increase to where shoppers in that part of the world now know much more about the health benefits of the spuds, she said.
Still, challenges remain.
While European shipments increased over the last decade, market penetration has not gone deeper, said Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Farm Fresh Produce, Mount Olive.
Ceccarelli said he wants to improve Europeans’ appetite for American-grown sweet potatoes.
In mid-September, Ceccarelli said he was in the process of developing a marketing campaign to work with European handlers to increase European consumer knowledge of the benefits of eating sweet potatoes.
Part of the plan includes development of a high-graphic 6-kilogram or 13-pound cartons.
Scheduled to being in early 2013, the campaign also includes point-of-sale material including recipe cards and chefs providing in-store demonstrations during high volume store traffic times to give shoppers preparation information.
“I’m not sure if European consumption will ever be as mainstream like it is in the U.S., but we’re seeing good numbers as is,” Ceccarelli said.
Better shipping varieties
Variety improvements help boost export sales and handling, said Daniel Bissett, president of Bissett Produce Co. Inc.
Bissett said the adoption of the North Carolina-bred covington variety marked a significant improvement over the older beauregard variety, which didn’t travel the Atlantic Ocean as well.
“Exports really haven’t worked out so well until the modern day,” Bissett said. “The covington has helped with shelf life.”
The United Kingdom and Canada remain big buyers, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn.