Europeans and others outside the U.S. continue to discover what North Carolinians have known for generations: It’s hard to beat a good sweet potato.
The proof is in continued strong growth in the state’s export sales.
About half of the sweet potatoes shipped by Faison, N.C.-based Farm Fresh Produce Inc. wind up in export markets, said Steven Ceccarelli, the company’s owner.
England is definitely the company’s biggest export customer, but other countries are catching up, Ceccarelli said.
“When I started, it was pretty much just England,” he said.
“Now it’s England, Ireland, Spain, France, Italy, Eastern Europe. Other countries are starting to step up to the plate.”
Interest from France, Italy and Spain, in particular, has picked up significantly in the past year and a half, Ceccarelli said.
“It’s becoming a more mainstream commodity” on the continent, he said.
“It’s a question of getting the knowledge out there.”
Egypt, Israel and, to a lesser extent, Portugal and South Africa compete with U.S. shippers for European market share, Ceccarelli said.
Greater domestic demand in Egypt and Israel, however, has kept more of those countries’ sweet potatoes at home, opening doors for U.S. shippers.
American shippers have another advantage, Ceccarelli said.
“We can offer sweet potatoes year-round.”
China produces an estimated 75% to 80% of the world’s sweet potatoes, but dumping fears have made Europeans wary of importing from that country, Ceccarelli said.
They don’t want sweet potatoes to become the next garlic, he said.
For Ceccarelli, keeping a good balance of domestic and export shipments makes good business sense.
“I don’t want to focus on one market in particular,” he said.
“I want to be diversified.”
Other than foodservice, exports represent the biggest growth market for North Carolina sweet potatoes, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc.
The United Kingdom, Spain, France, Germany and Belgium are among the big export markets for Southern Produce Distributors, said Precythe, who planned an October trip to Europe to meet with existing and potential customers.
Russia, which Precythe thought would be a good market for No. 2-grade sweet potatoes, has indicated its interested in the premium product its European neighbors prefer.