( SMP Southeast/Edmonson Farms )

As U.S. sweet potato exports increase, the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute, Benson, N.C., is using special events, promotional activities and social media to tout the benefits of sweet potatoes worldwide, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, marketing and communications consultant.

The institute has contracted with public relations agencies in Canada and Germany to promote sweet potatoes in Canada and Western Europe, she said.

The U.S. industry will have a presence at trade shows, sampling events and health and wellness seminars, where visitors will learn about recipe development and discover creative uses for sweet potatoes, she said.

Social media channels also will be used to promote U.S. sweet potatoes.

In 2010, exports accounted for 8% of U.S. sweet potato production, said Jerry Hingle, president and CEO of International Trade Associates, New Orleans.

“That figure has more than doubled six years later, with some 17% of production shipped overseas,” he said.

In 2016, the latest year for which data are available, production totaled 3.2 billion pounds, of which 522 million pounds were exported, he said.

“The lion’s share of this was produced in North Carolina and other Southern states,” Hingle said.

More than 40% of U.S. exports are shipped to the United Kingdom, 30% goes to the rest of Europe and 26% is exported to Canada.

“Shipments to Mexico are growing sharply, although volumes are relatively small for now,” he said.

Shipments grew 23% in 2017 compared to the previous year.

At the current pace, exports should top 380,000 metric tons this year, he said.

U.S. sweet potatoes will be promoted in numerous supermarkets in Western Europe during International Sweet Potato Week in March.

The institute has a finite amount of money for promotions, Langdon said, and works with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

Mexico is slated for some promotions starting this year, she said.

Mexico has plenty of potential for the sweet potato industry, since many grower-shippers already have relationships there, that country is accessible to all the U.S. states that grow sweet potatoes, and product doesn’t have to be containerized and shipped to a port, she said.

Export volumes were up 8% through May, Hingle said, and he expects shipments to continue to climb.