Export sales are a booming business for North Carolina sweet potato grower-shippers.

In 2012, the U.S. exported 247.6 million pounds of sweet potatoes to offshore markets, compared with 233 million pounds in 2011 and up from 39 million pounds in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Many shippers are increasing shipments to wholesalers in countries including England, Ireland, Germany, Spain and Holland.

In 1984, Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C., was the first grower-shipper to send the vegetables to European wholesalers, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer.

“Every year, there are more European countries wanting supplies,” Precythe said. “The Russian market is developing and the Scandinavian markets are really coming on strong during the past few years. The consumption overseas will just continue to grow.”

Precythe cited Russia, which, during its financial problems of the late 1990s and early 2000s, only wanted the cheapest sweet potato it could buy.

Today, buyers want the best quality, he said.

Supply-side infrastructure improvements helped increase movement, he said.

While other countries including Spain, Egypt and Honduras grow sweet potatoes, those ship mostly uncured green potatoes and the North Carolina storage capacity that supplies year-round cured sweet potatoes has driven the demand, Precythe said.

Export sales are expanding for Vick Family Farms in Wilson, N.C.

Last year, the grower-shipper sent 30% of its crop to Europe.

This season, it plans to ship 45% of its crop, said Charlotte Vick, partner.

Vick said the company has exported for about a decade but sales were handled through an outside broker and brand.

Taking over their own sales, Vick Farms increased from one customer in February to multiple customers, she said.

“A big part of the industry is in export sales,” Vick said.

“We have seen a large increase in it the last couple of years. After we visited Fruit Logistica, our sales that year went up a big deal. Other countries are learning what sweet potatoes are.

“People like the potatoes coming from the U.S., especially North Carolina because we are close to the ports and shipping times are smaller. They’re getting a better quality product because of the shorter shipping times.”

Vick said faster ocean transit times also help.

She said vessels that used to require up to five weeks of travel are now arriving within two weeks or less.

Export demand is strong for Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., which ships to wholesale customers in the United Kingdom and other European markets, the Caribbean Islands and Canada.

“North Carolina is really putting on the promotions in those export markets, especially into the U.K. and Europe,” said George Wooten, president.

“North Carolina definitely has a jump and edge in marketing sweet potatoes in those areas and is becoming the brand of origin of choice.”

Wooten said North Carolina has overtaken Israel and Spain in exporting to Europe.

Dewey Scott, vice president of Scott Farms, Lucama, N.C., said about 60% of the company’s fresh sweet potatoes ship overseas, with top markets being the United Kingdom, Germany and France.

Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC exports limited volume of its North Carolina sweet potatoes.

Jeff Scramlin, Wada’s Raleigh, N.C.-based director of business development, said the growers Wada represents used to send some for export but experienced difficulties through other marketers.

He said those growers wanted Wada to move more product domestically.

Shippers estimate up to 25% of North Carolina’s sweet potatoes ship overseas.