N.C. sweet potatoes take root abroad

by | Mar 26, 2012

The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services helps to promote exports of N.C. agricultural products through its International Marketing office. Through these efforts, North Carolina now exports about $3 billion in agricultural products each year. Over the next few weeks, we’ll highlight some local growers and food manufacturers finding success on the global stage.

Jose Calderon helped Farm Pak in Nash County become one of the largest sweet potato producers in the world.

When Barnes Farming opened in 1960, the Nash County farming operation planted just one acre of sweet potatoes. In 1969, the company added a sales and brokering arm, Farm Pak, to provide sweet potatoes for domestic and international grocery, produce and foodservice outlets. Now, the company is one of the largest growers, packers and shippers of sweet potatoes in the world.

A lot of the company’s recent success has to do with growing international demand for N.C. sweet potatoes, especially in Germany and France. Since 2006, the department’s International Marketing office has worked with the N.C. SweetPotato Commission to expand markets, with the goal of taking the North Carolina agriculture staple from a domestic product to a vegetable commonly found in European supermarkets and restaurants.

“It’s about being a connector,” NCDA&CS international trade specialist Kelly Powell-McIver said. “The department helps connect local growers to buyers and sellers abroad.”

The partnership has led to the development of marketing materials and press coverage, in-store promotions and trade shows, as well as direct-to-consumer marketing to educate consumers on the benefits of N.C. sweet potatoes.

“Sweet potatoes are sexy.” Powell-McIver said. “In Germany and France they seem exotic, but we want them to become a mainstream product.”

In order to get sweet potatoes into the mainstream, the department has focused on education outreach in Germany and France. International partners in those countries have reached out to local dieticians and educated them on the health benefits of sweet potatoes. At the same time, the initiative has reached out to local chefs to educate them on handling and cooking sweet potatoes. Those marketing efforts have not only increased the size of the sweet potato market, but have also helped boost the incomes of local growers such as Farm Pak.

Jose Calderon, Farm Pak’s international sales manager, has noticed the change. Farm Pak first began marketing sweet potatoes internationally in 1973, but in the past few years Calderon has been able to add new markets, volume and value in the European Union.

In 2009, Jose Calderon and Farm Pak president Carson Barnes received the NCDA&CS Exporter of the Year award for the company’s success exporting its products around the world. What started as one acre of sweet potatoes in 1960 has become 5,000 acres through developing partnerships and increasing international exports.

Check back for more success stories from the International Marketing office. In the meantime, stay informed with updates from the office on LinkedIn.