Sweet potatoes continue to find an eager audience in foreign markets.
Exports from the U.S. during the 2016-17 market year were 605.4 million pounds, up from 459.5 million in 2015-16, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.
Dramatic growth has been the norm for the past decade, as exports were only about 100 million pounds during the 2007-08 market year.
“The export business has grown by leaps and bounds as far as demand and consumption,” said Kelley Precythe, president of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors. “All of the continent is realizing the health benefits of sweet potatoes.”
George Wooten, president of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce, suggested that part of the reason the vegetable has done so well in Europe is that people there may not have the same preconceived notions about the sweet potato, like the idea it is only a holiday food.
“They see it for exactly what it is — it is a healthy, flavorful, pretty product to have on your plate,” Wooten said.
“They are interested in health, they’re interested in flavor, and sweet potato just hits that so well.”
North Carolina, which produces about 60% of the U.S. crop, exports about 40% of what it grows.
Kelly McIver, executive director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, projected that more growth is coming.
“We see this number increasing as we enter new markets,” she said. “Europe has been our primary focus with much ground still to conquer.”
In the last few years, the major foreign markets for the vegetable have been the United Kingdom, Canada and the Netherlands. The U.K. takes about 42% of the U.S.’s exported sweet potatoes, Canada about 28%, and the Netherlands about 20%.
The U.S. industry has been working to cultivate the appetite for sweet potatoes in other countries as well, including with funding from the federal Market Access Program.
The American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute has been allocated about $900,000 since 2014.