SPRING HOPE, N.C. — Export sales account for a large chunk of North Carolina sweet potato business.

Growers and packers say the segment remains healthy and is increasing demand.

Exports are booming business for North Carolina shippersVick Family Farms in Wilson sells about 30% of its crop to Europe, said Charlotte Vick-Ferrell, partner.

Vick-Ferrell said export demand has doubled since 2010.

“We have been experiencing strong growth for quite a few years now, and it’s a large part of our business,” she said. “The export part of the business is really growing.”

European introduction

Vick-Ferrell said she participated in a 2004 European trade show and said she was surprised by how little Europeans knew about sweet potatoes.

Five years later, their knowledge began to increase to where shoppers in that part of the world now know much more about the health benefits of the spuds, she said.

Still, challenges remain.

While European shipments increased over the last decade, market penetration has not gone deeper, said Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Farm Fresh Produce, Mount Olive.

Ceccarelli said he wants to improve Europeans’ appetite for American-grown sweet potatoes.

In mid-September, Ceccarelli said he was in the process of developing a marketing campaign to work with European handlers to increase European consumer knowledge of the benefits of eating sweet potatoes.

Part of the plan includes development of a high-graphic 6-kilogram or 13-pound cartons.

Scheduled to being in early 2013, the campaign also includes point-of-sale material including recipe cards and chefs providing in-store demonstrations during high volume store traffic times to give shoppers preparation information.

“I’m not sure if European consumption will ever be as mainstream like it is in the U.S., but we’re seeing good numbers as is,” Ceccarelli said.

Better shipping varieties

Variety improvements help boost export sales and handling, said Daniel Bissett, president of Bissett Produce Co. Inc.

Bissett said the adoption of the North Carolina-bred covington variety marked a significant improvement over the older beauregard variety, which didn’t travel the Atlantic Ocean as well.

“Exports really haven’t worked out so well until the modern day,” Bissett said. “The covington has helped with shelf life.”

The United Kingdom and Canada remain big buyers, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn.

While retail sales remain the biggest sweet potato purchaser, Wooten said the percentages of sales growth looks more impressive on the export side because growth appears bigger for a segment that started small.

“Someone the other day shared some information that in the last three years, sales in the U.K. have grown exponentially,” Wooten said. “Exports have an unlimited future because when you look at the market worldwide, there’s a lot of population there. It’s one of the fastest-growing categories we’ve had in the last three years.”

The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission Inc., Benson, helped generate overseas demand, Wooten said.

Tough early on

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, said he was the first grower-shipper to ship sweet potatoes to Europe.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Precythe said he worked with a government buyer who worked the Faison deal during the summer procuring vegetables for the military.

Precythe said that buyer told him it would be nice to supply troops sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving and Easter.

Paul Nash told Precythe others who tried to send sweet potatoes to the United Kingdom encountered mold problems.

In 1984, Precythe shipped some potatoes to buyers in the United Kingdom, Germany and other places.

The shipments then took 30-40 days versus the 10-15 days the boat ride entails today, he said.

Precythe hired an international salesman who helped generate demand at Europe food shows and sales, he said, went crazy from there.

“There are still a lot of risks in the overseas market,” Precythe said. “There’s no PACA protection, and there’s more competition than there used to be. A lot of other countries are shipping.”

Belgium and Spain are also big U.S. sweet potato buyers.

Nash Produce Co., Nashville, exports a small volume of sweet potatoes.

Thomas Joyner, general manager, said exports aren’t a large market for Nash.

“Exports have grown, but not as rapidly as some of our other business” he said.

Nash trucks containers of sweet potatoes to load on ships in Norfolk, Va.