For most sweet potato producers, exports are a small portion of their sales. However, North Carolina sends large amounts of sweet potatoes overseas.

“We’re nearing 20% of our production being exported,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Smithfield, N.C.-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

Overall, Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, Columbia, S.C., says exports are increasing.

“In the last 10 years, there has been a big increase in exports,” he said.

According to Walker, in 2003, only 26,603 metric tons were shipped. In 2012, more than 111,000 tons were exported, Walker said, quoting numbers from the National Agriculture Statistic Service.

In terms of destinations, there’s a bit of a shift happening.

“Canada has always been a big market, but we’re seeing dramatic increases in shipments to the United Kingdom and the Netherlands,” Walker said.

Walker says this likely is because Europeans seem to place a higher emphasis on health and nutrition.

“That plays a role in their wanting to buy sweet potatoes,” he said.

George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Inc, Chadbourn, N.C., credits the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission with influencing the amount of exports sent from that state.

“They’ve done a lot of presentations and educating of consumers, and it’s really paid off,” he said.

Wooten says one benefit of exporting sweet potatoes is that other countries don’t have the idea that sweet potatoes are only for the holidays.

“Here, we’ve just started breaking that in the last five years or so,” he said.

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C., says most of Southern Produce’s exports go to the United Kingdom.

He also listed Spain, France, Ireland, Germany and Sweden as other European destinations.


Risks and challenges

Despite the company’s success with exports, Precythe says there are downsides to shipping to Europe.

“There’s a lot of risk in shipping oversees because of the time period you’re dealing with,” he said.

Typically, domestic transport times are only two or three days, while a trip to Europe can take two weeks, according to Precythe.

There have been advances in recent years, however.

“When we started shipping oversees, it was a 30-plus-day trip, and now the average is about 12 days,” he said.

Norman Brown, director of sales for the Raleigh, N.C. office of Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, says the transit time is a deterrent, as well as the rate of return.

“We always try to give a nice return back to our growers and with exports sometimes that isn’t always the case,” he said.

Benefits of shipping to other counties include a market for more sizes.

“In the past, because of the acreage we’ve had, we’ve needed to ship oversees to use different sizes of potatoes,” Precythe said.

Domestic stores are starting to use those off-sizes as well, however, Precythe said.