North Carolina sweet potato growers have a straight shot to a market with a lot of potential.

European markets have a long way to go when it comes to orange-flesh sweet potatoes like those grown in North Carolina.

Canada and the United Kingdom are the two largest markets for exported sweet potatoes, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service. The ERS estimated fresh and frozen sweet potato exports at 148.4 million pounds in 2009.

The Smithfield-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission has been doing test promotions in selected European markets for a few years, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director.

The most recent occurred in Sweden in May. Sixty-eight ICA Maxi stores participated in the demonstrations and sampling in a weeklong promotion.

“They showed an increase of 610%,” Johnson-Langdon said. “It was a good experience for the customers. They learned about an unknown product and the demos provided inspirations on how to use sweet potatoes in different ways.”

The commission is looking at doing another European promotion early next year.

The European market hasn’t always been a viable outlet for grower-shippers, said Stewart Precythe, chief executive officer of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc.

Product just wasn’t holding up during the trip over the Atlantic, he said. Precythe said shippers like Southern Distributors eventually resolved the shipment issues and started getting potatoes to servicemen and women in Germany and other areas. The market grew from there, he said.

“It won’t be many years before we ship to every country in Europe,” he said.

George Wooten, owner and president of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E Bailey Produce, said improving machinery also helps with exports.

Wayne E. Bailey installed a sorter that is gentler on the sweet potatoes.

“The way we designed it had a lot to do with the European business,” he said. “It handles a lot smoother and is less abrasive.”

A roughed-up sweet potato doesn’t have the shelf life needed.

“It takes 12 days to get to the destination,” he said. “This handles it a lot smoother and is less abrasive. It’s also beneficial for our local customers, but it was very helpful for our European business because it handles the sweet potatoes much easier.”

Europe accounts for a significant part of the business at Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C., said Jerome Vick, co-owner

“It’s been growing by leaps and bounds,” Vick said. “We’re having more requests from over there than ever before. It seems that the consumer over there is just adding sweet potatoes to his diet even more.”