webtonia – North Carolina Sweet Potatoes
Anniversary: 15 successful years in the European market

Since 2005, the North Carolina sweetpotato industry has been actively supporting European trade with marketing and communication activities. An unprecedented success story!

In these 15 years, the export volume increased by well over 600%. Thanks to the massive improvement in the availability of goods, sweetpotatoes can now be bought all year round in almost every supermarket and discount store.

The supply meets the steadily growing demand for sweetpotatoes which has been building for years. In fact, U.S. sweetpotatoes have succeeded in advancing from a niche product to an absolute trend vegetable in Europe. Awareness and consumption of the orange tuber have increased to such an extent that it has become indispensable to consumers, restaurateurs, retailers, and food manufacturers.

Numerous marketing campaigns implemented over the past decade and a half in various EU countries have positively positioned North Carolina sweetpotatoes as the “orange superfood”.

For example, the annual International Sweet Potato Week has become an established and successful POS campaign. The promotion week, which takes place in different EU countries every spring, leads to increased sales of up to 200% during the promotion period.

In addition, activities such as press relations, cooperation with influencers, social media campaigns, discussions with experts from the health industry and retailers at trade fairs and conventions, as well as targeted consumer campaigns such as presence at street food festivals have contributed to this unique success model for 15 years now.

And there is still no end in sight! The North Carolina sweetpotato industry will continue to build on this success in the coming years.

North Carolina sweetpotato harvest wraps up – high demand expected

Most sweetpotato growers in North Carolina are in the final stages of this year’s harvest. While the 2020 harvest started a bit later than usual, the crop looks to be on par with the high-quality customers have come to expect from the North Carolina industry.

Late planting and rainy fall weather

While this year’s hurricane season was a very busy one for the southeastern United States, North Carolina sweetpotatoes fortunately remained unharmed. “We are officially out of hurricane season now, and thankfully North Carolina did not suffer the damage that our neighbors to the south experienced,” says CoCo Daughtry of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

The state did see a lot of rainfall in the late fall, which is why the sweetpotato fields were too wet to harvest. “This pushed off work until the fields could dry out,” Daughtry says. In addition to some harvest delays due to the weather, the crop was also planted later this year. “Overall, the later harvest this year allowed time for the crop to size up,” says Daughtry.

Strong demand in the market

“We are going into our sweetest of seasons with the holidays approaching, and we anticipate that the high demand will continue over the next several months,” Daughtry says.

Consumer demand has also risen due to the pandemic this year. “As consumers have continued to remain closer to home due to safety concerns, they are experimenting far more in their kitchens with new recipes,” explains Daughtry.

Moreover, the health benefits and long shelf life of sweetpotatoes have been important factors contributing to their demand. “While we do not have data that pinpoints specifically if the demand is affected by this, there is no question that sweetpotatoes are indeed a superfood and have excellent shelf life if stored properly. Additionally, sweetpotatoes lend themselves to great flexibility in preparation and are an excellent source of nutrition. These facts definitely can’t hurt our market growth opportunities,” Daughtry concludes.

Sweet future visions – Quo vadis, North Carolina sweetpotato farming?

In our interview, Dr. Alexander M. “Sandy” Stewart, Deputy Commissioner for Agricultural Services at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, provides first-hand insights into the North Carolina sweetpotato industry’s current situation and visions for the future.

How would you evaluate the current situation and prospects for sweetpotato farming in North Carolina?

Dr. Stewart: sweetpotatoes remain one of the most important crops for North Carolina farmers. North Carolina’s agriculture is incredibly diverse and sweetpotatoes play an integral role in that diversity from a crop rotation, cash flow, marketing, and overall farm management standpoint. The export market, especially to Europe, is a true success for North Carolina’s farmers and is a model we want to expand and replicate in other crops. The story of the NC sweetpotato is one of a healthy superfood, produced in a sustainable manner, and exported for consumers across the globe. What’s not to like about that!

What was the biggest challenge that NCSP farmers had to face in this extraordinary year 2020?

Dr. Stewart: Farmers, like everyone else, have had to adapt in new and challenging ways. Protecting and keeping our farm labor safe has been an area of emphasis. NC farmers have worked closely with our local health departments, statewide public health officials, Department of Labor, Department of Agriculture, and the university Extension Service to provide personal protective equipment, social distancing, and the best health care possible. Our farmworkers are like family and protecting them has been a priority for farmers across North Carolina.

What visions are there for the future of NCSP farming?

Dr. Stewart: Sustainability is the key to the future of NC sweetpotatoes. Sustainability can be defined in many ways; environmental, economic, market access, technology, etc. Because of the innovation of our farmers, our investment in research and technology, and the continued market development of sweetpotatoes across the globe, sweetpotatoes are sustainable now and positioned well to be so in the future. For the immediate future, we see trade agreements as being very important to our farmers. We all lose when market access is restricted.

What does the NC Department of Agriculture do to protect and improve soil and water resources, or to encourage organic farming?

Dr. Stewart: Almost everything NCDA does has the goal of resilience and sustainability because farmers depend on the natural environment for their livelihood. Soil and water conservation programs are obvious, but some efforts like agricultural research to optimize water use efficiency may be less obvious but still important. NCDA provides consultative agronomic services and helps defray the cost of organic certification. We have a multitude of efforts and programs around resiliency and sustainability which we try and improve upon constantly.

Is there anything else you would like to let the European partners of the NCSP agriculture know?

Dr. Stewart: North Carolina agriculture thrives because of partnerships on many levels. The European partners throughout the supply chain are valued by all NC farmers. When you think about the European-NC partnership, the end result is the availability of a nutritious, tasty, high quality, affordable food on the tables of European consumers. There are many steps between a plant bed in North Carolina and that European dinner plate which require many partners along the way.

Looking back on Michelle Grainger’s first 100 Days

Since September, Michelle L. Grainger has been the new Executive Director of the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission (NCSPC). She gives exclusive insights into her first 100 days in office.

“In my first 100 days, I have been  busy meeting as many in our industry as I possibly can while also trying to learn as much as I can! It’s been incredibly exciting and these past 100 days have passed by quickly!”

“I have had the honor of meeting the United States Secretary of Agriculture, Dr. Sonny Perdue and North Carolina’s Commissioner of Agriculture, Mr. Steve Troxler.”

“I have had the opportunity to ride in both a mechanical harvester…

…as well as a tractor utilizing disks to turn over the sweetpotatoes in the field.”

 

“We celebrated Breast Cancer Awareness month in October and the incredible FarmHERS of the NC sweetpotato industry.”

“Best of all I have the opportunity to work with two amazing women who help me each and every day to ensure that I am representing our industry to the fullest – not to mention we have a great time together!”

“I’m looking forward to my next 100 days and continuing to meet more professionals who help make our industry what it is today.“

In this spirit, the Commission and its producers, packers and shippers look forward to the future and our continuing expansion of the European and United Kingdom markets. 2020 has been a year of challenges, and the NC sweetpotato producers have met these challenges as they continue to meet their international consumer’s demands of the premium NC sweetpotato. Here’s to a ‘SWEET’ 2021!