Sweet potato demand in established export markets, such as Europe and the United Kingdom, continues to grow, North Carolina grower-shippers say.
“We continue to see strong demand for export opportunities into Canada, the U.K. and the European marketplaces,” said Jeff Scramlin, Raleigh, N.C.-based director of business development for sweet potatoes with Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.
Consumers in those markets prefer North Carolina sweet potatoes over sweet potatoes grown in competing countries, and that has helped Wada Farms Marketing Group maintain double-digit growth for several years in a row, Scramlin said.
Russia had been an “up-and-coming market,” until Russian President Vladimir Putin imposed an import ban on U.S. produce earlier in 2014, Scramlin said.
That situation likely won’t affect overall export shipments thanks to demand elsewhere, Scramlin said.
Exports — mostly to the U.K. and western Europe — now account for 20% of North Carolina sweet potato production, according to the Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.
Smaller quantities go to eastern European markets, such as Poland and — when not under embargo — Russia, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, the commission’s executive director.
“Lots of consumer education is needed in Eastern Europe in order to raise consumption, which translates into more shipments,” she said.
Export strategies vary. Some devote most of their production to overseas customers, while others barely get a taste of the category.
Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms doesn’t rely much on exports, co-owner Jimmy Burch said.
“Every year we sell out what we have to the customers we have, so why go that way?” he said.
Export clients prefer the covington variety, which is predominant in North Carolina, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. in Chadbourn, N.C.
“That market has really grown in the last 10 years, and a lot of that is because of what the commission has done to get the message out,” Wooten said.
Export customers tend to get product in 6-, 13- and 18-kilogram pack sizes — the latter of which is comparable to the 40-pound carton, Wooten said.
“They use a full array of sizes — they like a small and they like an extra-large,” he said.
Exports have been crucial to steady growth in sales, said Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce Co.
“The exporting of sweet potatoes has enabled the industry to offer sweet potatoes outside of the U.S. while importing new marketing and preparation trends,” he said.
Exports comprise 77% of sales for Faison-based Farm Fresh Produce, owner Steven Ceccarelli said.
“The new generation is more health-conscious here, but in Europe, that’s always been the case,” he said.
Israel, Egypt and Spain also supply European customers with sweet potatoes, but most buyers prefer U.S. product, Ceccarelli said.
“Other countries may offer sweet potatoes for two or three months, and we can offer them all year,” he said.
Israel has focused recently on domestic sales, creating more sales opportunities for U.S. exporters, Ceccarelli said.
“We have storage and store crop for a whole year, which is a real advantage,” he said.
Room for growth
Although Europe remains a chief export destination for North Carolina product, every now and then, stories pop up about potential new markets for sweet potatoes.
A recent example is the Papua province of Indonesia, whose administration announced in September it was planning to develop production of sweet potatoes as a staple food in an effort to reduce the population’s dependency on rice.
“Sweet potatoes offer great potential to replace rice as a staple food. Therefore, the development must be carried out continually in stages,” Hendrikus Kawer, head of the tuber and sago section at the Papua Food and Horticulture Agency, was quoted as saying Sept. 21 in the Jakarta Post.
He said Papua had produced 405,527 tons of sweet potatoes in 2013.