Export markets appear to be keeping pace with increased domestic consumption of U.S. sweet potatoes.

In 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the U.S. exported 114,867 tons of sweet potatoes to offshore markets, compared with 25,874 tons in 2002.

“They’ve been increasing every year for 10 or 15 years,” said Charles Walker, executive secretary of the Columbia, S.C.-based U.S. Sweet Potato Council.

Growth has been most dramatic in the last four or five years, he said.

“That’s getting to be a strong market for us, and I believe the growers are beginning to take advantage of it,” Walker said of the export market.

U.S. product has to compete with Honduras, Egypt and Spain in Europe and does so effectively, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., which ships product to European markets.

“We can give them consistent quality 12 months out of the year, and that’s what they want,” Precythe said.

An up-and-coming market is Russia, Precythe said.

“I always wanted to get into Russia, because Russia is not a poor country now, but when they had the financial problems I always wanted to get in there with some No. 2s and some off-grades,” Precythe said. “I’m selling to people now in New York that are shipping into Russia, so that’s going to be a huge market too.”

He said U.S. shippers are just beginning to tap the market potential of Europe.

“It’s just opening up, and I don’t think there will be any country in Europe that doesn’t have sweet potatoes,” Precythe said.

The only potential obstacle appears to be a shaky European economy, Precythe said.

“It’s dangerous, but I’ve only been hurt one time over there,” he said.

It helps to take precautionary measures, Precythe said.

“The money is slower, you got your shipping time, and there’s all different kinds of deals you can cut. It’s risky,” he said.

For the Mississippi industry, Germany and the United Kingdom have been important markets, although there is some question as to whether they’ll remain as strong in the future, said Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.