Export potential for sweet potatoes has yet to reach it’s peak, according to several sources in the industry.
Sweet potato exports have grown by 320% over the past 10 years, said Charles Walker, executive secretary for the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, Columbia, S.C.
"In 2001, the U.S. shipped out 21,570 metric tons. In 2010, the number was 90,859 metric tons," Walker said.
He said those numbers should continue to increase.
"The market hasn’t been saturated yet, so I’d say there’s still growth potential there," Walker said.
Nash Produce, Nashville, N.C., is expanding its exports.
Don Sparks joined Nash Produce in December. He handles domestic and international sales.
"Exporting is an area we can expand in where we aren’t in direct competition with many other shippers," Sparks said. "Penetration is only in the 30% to 40% range over there, so there’s major growth potential."
These new markets give growers an increased demand, which should help to hold prices steady, but Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Farm Fresh Produce, Faison, N.C., said this isn’t always the case.
"There are exporters that are bringing the price down. There’s no need for that," Ceccarelli said. "Because of the extreme growth. We can keep the price where it has been. But the market is what it is, and we may have to adjust pricing as well."
Ceccarelli ships sweet potatoes out of North Carolina year-round. His strongest markets are England, Ireland, Holland and France, he said.
"English imports increase about 10% every year," Ceccarelli says.
According to Ceccarelli, this increase in demand stems from sweet potatoes’ nutritional value.
"The volume keeps increasing over there because, just like the states, people are becoming more aware of the health benefits and lower fat content," Ceccarelli said.
Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributions Inc., Faison, N.C., said increased demand hasn’t affected local supplies because more sweet potatoes have been planted to accommodate the increase in exports.
"The main growth is in the oversees market. That’s why the acreage is up," Precythe said.
George Wooten, owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C. said his company doesn’t do a large amount of exporting but he thinks there’s potential there.
"It’s a growing market for North Carolina," he said.
Several distributors reported a strong sweet potato presence at Fruit Logistica in February in Germany.
"Fruit Logistica in Germany was great. There’s a lot of interest," Precythe said.
"There was a lot of excitement there over sweet potatoes. I understand there was some sampling going on, and they were among the most popular booths," Walker said.