Local sales are important to the sweet potato industry, growers say.

“Eating local is important when you can, and better storage techniques help us provide a better product than we could in the past. Our storage capabilities and climate control are better now and quality is what you have to have in the marketplace, whether you are selling locally or not,” said Benny Graves, executive director, Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Vardaman.

Others agree that local options provide benefits.

“We do what we can to provide locally as it helps communities. It cuts the costs for our customers, and it helps maintain the integrity of the product,” said Leah Brakke, marketing director, Black Gold Farms, Grand Forks, N.D.

The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission participated with North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services to promote North Carolina sweet potatoes in the Farm to School program, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Benson-based commission.

“This program puts locally produced North Carolina sweet potatoes into participating schools across our state,” Johnson-Langdon said.

Export markets also prove profitable for grower-shippers.

“Exports to the United Kingdom and European Union marketplaces are up tremendously. We’ve been seeing double-digit growth in both dollars and pounds for the past five to six years,” said Jeff Scramlin, director of business development of the Raleigh, N.C. office of Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.

Scramlin expects even stronger demand in the future.

“This trend doesn’t look to be slowing down anytime soon,” he said.

In fact, Johnson-Langdon said the largest growth for the sweet potato industry is in export markets.

Since 2004, the percentage of the state’s total production that is exported rose from 3% in 2004 to 22% in 2014, she said.

In 2014, the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute was formed and became a co-operator with USDA/FAS, something Johnson-Langdon thinks will be helpful.

“We in North Carolina believe that we have only touched the surface for demand in other countries, especially those that do not grow sweet potatoes,” Johnson-Langdon said.

This increased interest in export markets helps drive prices locally.

“Market Fresh Produce expects the market to start strong this year, mainly due to a short storage crop and high demand for export product and the processed market,” said Shanan Cox, director of national accounts, of the Nixa, Mo.-based company.