Strong domestic demand and competition from other countries have lowered prices and combined to make some Southern sweet potato shippers step back from exports.

Nixa, Mo.-based Market Fresh Produce LLC expects more export demand this year, with France and Germany leading the way, said Mike Kemp, vice president of brand development.

Those two European countries are hardly alone, Kemp said.

“Pretty much every market is growing in sweet potato sales. It used to be you only saw it on a few menus. Now it’s a surprise if it’s not on a menu.”

Exports to markets including the United Kingdom and the Netherlands used to be a bigger deal for Wynne, Ark.-based Matthews Ridgeview Farms, co-owner Kim Matthews said. But in recent years, domestic demand has increased so much it’s hard to meet customers’ demands overseas, she said.

“We did quite a few in the past, but domestic demand has gone up so much we haven’t had the extra product to do many exports other than Canada.”

Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms Inc.’s exports are focused on Canada, co-owner Jimmy Burch Sr. said.

It’s a limited export business, Burch said, but a thriving one.

“Demand is good in Canada,” he said. “They eat a lot healthier than Americans. They eat about twice as many fruits and vegetables.”

Growers throughout the South have benefited handsomely from the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission’s investment in opening up export markets in recent years, said George Wooten, president of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce.

The U.K. and Germany hold their positions as top destinations, Wooten said.

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, said he scaled back his exports to Europe considerably in the 2011-12 season because of competition from Honduras, Egypt and other countries that have ramped up their sweet potato exports in recent years.

Increased production has driven the price of export sweet potatoes down, making overseas markets less attractive for shippers such as Southern Produce, Precythe said.

Still, there are European customers who have been doing business with Southern Produce for more than 20 years that are willing to pay a premium for the company’s label, he said.