Europeans and others outside the U.S. continue to discover what North Carolinians have known for generations: It’s hard to beat a good sweet potato.

The proof is in continued strong growth in the state’s export sales.

About half of the sweet potatoes shipped by Faison, N.C.-based Farm Fresh Produce Inc. wind up in export markets, said Steven Ceccarelli, the company’s owner.

British invasion

England is definitely the company’s biggest export customer, but other countries are catching up, Ceccarelli said.

“When I started, it was pretty much just England,” he said.

“Now it’s England, Ireland, Spain, France, Italy, Eastern Europe. Other countries are starting to step up to the plate.”

Interest from France, Italy and Spain, in particular, has picked up significantly in the past year and a half, Ceccarelli said.

“It’s becoming a more mainstream commodity” on the continent, he said.

“It’s a question of getting the knowledge out there.”

Egypt, Israel and, to a lesser extent, Portugal and South Africa compete with U.S. shippers for European market share, Ceccarelli said.

Greater domestic demand in Egypt and Israel, however, has kept more of those countries’ sweet potatoes at home, opening doors for U.S. shippers.

American shippers have another advantage, Ceccarelli said.

“We can offer sweet potatoes year-round.”

Asian competition

China produces an estimated 75% to 80% of the world’s sweet potatoes, but dumping fears have made Europeans wary of importing from that country, Ceccarelli said.

They don’t want sweet potatoes to become the next garlic, he said.

For Ceccarelli, keeping a good balance of domestic and export shipments makes good business sense.

“I don’t want to focus on one market in particular,” he said.

“I want to be diversified.”

Other than foodservice, exports represent the biggest growth market for North Carolina sweet potatoes, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc.

European demand

The United Kingdom, Spain, France, Germany and Belgium are among the big export markets for Southern Produce Distributors, said Precythe, who planned an October trip to Europe to meet with existing and potential customers.

Russia, which Precythe thought would be a good market for No. 2-grade sweet potatoes, has indicated its interested in the premium product its European neighbors prefer.

Japan and Latin America also are in Southern’s sights.

“They’ll be over the whole world before long,” Precythe said.

More and more North Carolina sweet potatoes are finding their way into export markets, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Smithfield-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.

“We’re seeing more going to Western Europe, and more to Canada than in years past,” Johnson-Langdon said.

For Europe, the appeal of North Carolina sweet potatoes is clear.

“It’s new,” Johnson-Langdon said. “They don’t have a history with it.”

Sales are particularly strong in Great Britain, Johnson-Langdon said, with Germany gaining ground fast.

Marketing overseas

In August, Johnson-Langdon traveled to Germany with a marketing official from the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services for promotional events in the country.

The commission has even set up a German-language North Carolina sweet potato website.

The promotions included tastings in not only German retailers but also department stores, Johnson-Langdon said.

Johnson-Langdon said the commission will hold similar promotions in Germany in 2012, too.

She said she makes one or two overseas visits a year to promote North Carolina sweet potatoes abroad.

North Carolina shippers don’t export as many sweet potatoes to Mexico, Johnson-Langdon said, because of the proximity of other sweet potato-producing states, such as Louisiana and Mississippi, to our southern neighbor.

North Carolina, with about 20% of sweet potatoes going to export markets, has found a nice balance between domestic and export supplies, said George Wooten, owner and chief executive officer of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.

“The North Carolina SweetPotato Commission has done a great job promoting North Carolina sweet potatoes as the sweet potatoes of choice,” Wooten said.

The United Kingdom, continental Europe and Canada remain strong export markets for North Carolina shippers, he said.

“I spoke to somebody recently who has relatives in Italy, and they were saying they can now find sweet potatoes in the grocery store year-round,” Wooten said.

Particularly because they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, for Europeans, sweet potatoes are not a seasonal item, Wooten said.

In Canada, Wayne E. Bailey has an edge because of the variety of packs and value-added items it provides, Wooten said.

Dunn, N.C.-based Godwin Produce Co. doesn’t export sweet potatoes, but David Godwin, the company’s owner, said exports were up industrywide.