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US sweet potato farmers look to European market

RALEIGH, N.C. — 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.

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.

American farmers are 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.”

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