FAISON, N.C. — Growing their potatoes in the heart of the Mid-Atlantic region, North Carolina sweet potato growers remain in prime real estate to market their products as locally and regionally grown.

“Local is seeing strong demand,” said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc.

“I’ve traveled all over Europe. It’s the same way there. They have pictures of farmers in their produce displays. Everyone wants to highlight locally grown products.”

Sweet potatoes fit locally grown marketing initiativesPrecythe said interest in locally grown is demonstrated by North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Virginia chain stores featuring he and his son, Kelly Precythe, in merchandising display photos.

Though the definition of local varies with the customer, Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nash Produce Co., Nashville, said he defines local as product grown within 600-700 miles.

“We consider ourselves local to the Northeast, the largest piece of the U.S. population, as opposed to going to California,” he said.

“We are able to promote that a little bit. We’re seeing people across the board wanting to know more about what they’re buying. Our customers are speaking about it too. Some of the larger retailers are interested in buying regionally because it helps them tout the local aspects of it.”

Burch Farms sees a large number of people drive to its operation to buy sweet potatoes directly from the farm versus the supermarket, said Jimmy Burch Jr., a salesman.

The state’s retailers are doing a good job promoting local growers through the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, he said.

“A lot are sourcing as much as they can from their home state, wherever their distribution centers are located,” Burch said.

“Once they’re not available, they’ll end up buying from other regions. Luckily, we have product year-round so we can keep going with them. With the transportation costs of coming from California, we should see a lot more locally grown vegetables on the East Coast.”

Mixed demand

Local demand doesn’t make as big a profound change on items such as sweet potatoes, said Daniel Bissett, president of Bissett Produce Co. Inc., Spring Hope.

“Sweet potatoes, we aren’t as affected by the buy local push,” he said.

“When I think of local, I think of the guys growing crops like broccoli, cauliflower and heirloom tomatoes. Those are crops that have a much higher per-acre return and much of that is in very small tonnages.

“Chefs in New York send crew out to fields to buy some things like red leaf lettuce. With sweet potatoes, you don’t see that.”

Local demand is good, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn.

It has its limits, however, he said.

“I think you are seeing a lot of people looking for local,” Wooten said.

“The thing about it is, everyone can’t be local. The thing about local, the pressure retailers are putting on us to do all our food safety issues, the (Global Trade Identification Numbers) and traceability, we have all that and that may limit some of the smaller people from being able to afford to it.”

Wooten said he thinks local witnesses higher demand than organic produce.

Though he said organic has its place, Wayne E. Bailey doesn’t grow organic sweet potatoes but markets some from other growers.

Wayne E. Bailey used to offer organics during the late 2000s. Wooten said the category represents a limited market.

Organic demand is increasing, Joyner said.

“It has done OK, and we have been very fortunate with it,” he said. “It’s a good product, but it’s still considered a niche. It allows Nash to broaden its product offerings and complements the bags and microwaveable product we offer.”

Burch sells all its organic sweet potatoes to processors that produce organic baby food, Burch said.