A tractor lifts covington variety sweet potatoes to the surface in mid-August so that they can be hand harvested by workers at Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C. U.S. sweet potato exports have increased every year for a decade, from 100.4 million pounds of fresh or dried product in 2007-08 to 605.2 million pounds in 2016-17. Photo courtesy Vick Family Farms

The demands of export buyers are leading U.S. shippers to take additional steps to differentiate themselves from the competition.

Farm Fresh Produce, Mount Olive, N.C., is the first U.S. produce grower-shipper to be fully compliant with the Global Good Agricultural Practices GRASP assessment, owner Steven Ceccarelli said.

“Our business is 90% export,” Ceccarelli said. “A lot of retailers in Europe are asking for GRASP certification. That pushed us in that direction. If you don’t have it, you can’t supply them. It’s given us an advantage.”

GRASP is the GlobalG.A.P. Risk Assessment on Social Practice that measures specific aspects of workers’ health, safety and welfare. Ceccarelli said the process documents an open dialogue between management and employees, including monthly meetings to address employee concerns.

Ceccarelli said many of his competitors pay workers minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour in North Carolina, but Farms Fresh Produce’s entry level jobs pay a minimum of $10 an hour.

“It’s a step in the right direction,” he said.

Meanwhile, Boyette Bros. Produce, Wilson, N.C., has added an organic packing line, in part, to meet the demands of export customers.

“As we entered new markets in Europe, customers began requesting more organic product,” operations manager Regan Boyette Dawson said in a news release. “We wanted to offer a premium pack that we can both be proud of and give the same attention to detail as our conventional packs.”

Boyette Bros. achieved certified organic designation for covington variety sweet potatoes in 2012, and has maintained certified organic storage standards since 2013. But the company lacked an organic packing certification until this year. Previously, the company’s organic produce was transported to off-site packinghouses. The new, in-house organic packing line minimizes costs by reducing transportation and handling.

U.S. sweet potato exports have increased every year for a decade, from 100.4 million pounds of fresh or dried product in 2007-08 to 605.2 million pounds in 2016-17. The value of that product also has soared, from $40.5 million in 2007-08 to $174.7 million last season.

The United Kingdom is by far the largest importer of fresh or dried U.S. sweet potatoes with more than 42% of export volume followed by Canada (28%) and the Netherlands (20%).

“The export market continues to grow,” said Jeff Thomas, director of marketing for Scott Farms International, Lucama, N.C. “As the uses becomes more widely known, you see them being used in more and different ways just as in the domestic market. I think you will continue to see growth throughout the U.K., and Europe as a whole, as well as some other potential market areas.”

Kim Kornegay-LeQuire, owner of Kornegay Family Farms & Produce, Princeton, N.C., agreed that international consumers are beginning to appreciate the versatility of sweet potatoes.

“I think exports continue to grow as consumers realize more and more that sweets are not exotics that can only be used in a few dishes,” she said. “They have a reasonable shelf life and are about as versatile as produce comes. You can eat them at all three meals, for a snack and in an adult beverage or a non-alcoholic smoothie all in one day and not have the same thing twice.”



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