US sweet potato farmers look to Europe for growth

Published 3:55 pm Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The humble sweet potato — a staple in Southern cuisine and perennial favorite on Thanksgiving dinner tables — is suddenly looking a lot more cosmopolitan.

With U.S. consumption growing slowly, farmers have found a market for the vitamin-packed, cholesterol-free sweet potato on the tables of health-conscious Europeans. Between 2005 and 2009, the value of U.S. sweet potato exports more than doubled to $51.4 million, with much of that growth coming from Europe, especially Great Britain.

The value of exports to the United Kingdom jumped from $5.7 million to $20.4 million between 2005 and 2009, and in the first six months of 2010 exports were on pace to comfortably exceed last year’s total, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even Ireland, famous for its white potatoes, is getting a taste of the orange kind: Ireland only imported $125,000 worth of sweet potatoes last year, but that’s up from none in 2005.

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It’s a huge change from even 10 years ago, when European supermarkets branded the sweet potato an “exotic vegetable” and relegated it to a few feet of out-of-the-way shelves in produce sections. The growth has been so swift that it’s hard to isolate a single reason for it.

“It’s a great-tasting vegetable, first of all,” said Jerome Vick, co-owner of Vick Family Farms in Wilson, N.C. Vick has been growing sweet potatoes since 1982, and in the past five years he’s seen Europe become an increasingly important market. Along with the 40-pound boxes of potatoes he packages for the American market, he sells potatoes in European-standard 6-kilogram (about 13-pound) packs.

Vick also follows the food safety standards adopted by European supermarket chains.

“They’re a little more stringent in terms of food safety, and since we’ve always been food safety-oriented on this farm, it was a good fit,” he said.

American farmers are also investing in new equipment to help ensure uniform size and shape in the potatoes, which is important in Europe, said David Picha, a professor at the Louisiana State University Agricultural Center.

Americans have an advantage over rival farmers in countries like Israel, Egypt and South Africa, Picha said.

“We can provide a consistently high quality of sweet potatoes on a year-round basis, and that’s something very few countries can do,” he said. “The main buyers in Europe are the supermarkets, and that year-round consistency is what they’re looking for.”

But the biggest boost might have come from farmers’ recent promotions, which helped inform European consumers about the sweet potato, Picha said.

“Ten years ago, this was an undiscovered vegetable in Europe,” he said. “We’ve done a very good job of promoting it and building awareness of the flavor and nutritional value since then.”

The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission, for example, has been holding promotions with European supermarkets in the past few years, with the most recent one in Sweden last May.

North Carolina, which grows about 47 percent of U.S. sweet potatoes, is one of the major American producers along with Louisiana, Mississippi and California.

“They’re still grown here and still popular here, but now we’re seeing them become popular with people all over,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, the executive director of the North Carolina commission.

In the U.S., “value-added” products like sweet potato fries are helping put sweet potatoes on more plates, but not at a rate comparable to countries like Britain. Per capita American consumption slumped between the mid-1980s and 2003, when it began inching upward. It’s now just over 5 pounds a year.

All the marketing, new standards and new equipment help, but for farmers like Vick, the vegetable speaks for itself.

“Sweet potatoes have always been a popular vegetable in the South, but people in the North have always eaten them a lot, too,” he said. “I guess it just took a little while for the news to make it across the ocean.”