Sweet potato meeting shows export options
HOUSTON, Miss. -- Sweet potato growers in Mississippi have been part of a growing industry in recent years, but they can do even better if they capitalize on export options.
That was the prevailing message at a recent meeting hosted by the Mississippi State University Extension Service at the Houston Civic Center Feb. 20.
“Mississippi growers produced about 28,000 acres of sweet potatoes last year, which puts the state at No. 2 nationally,” said MSU Extension sweet potato specialist Stephen Meyers. “I think what we’ve struggled with is connecting all the dots. It’s a matter of finding the market, making a sale and figuring out how to get the product from point A to point B. Meetings like this help us connect those dots.”
Scott Cagle, MSU Extension agent in Chickasaw County, coordinated the meeting after visits to ports in Mississippi and abroad. One of these was the Yangshan Deep Water Port outside of Shanghai, China.
Cagle and nine other Extension agents used grant funding to subsidize travel expenses to eastern China for two weeks in 2016. During their trip, they toured ports, storage facilities, markets and universities in Shanghai, Tai’an and Beijing. Prior to the trip, they also toured each port in Mississippi.
“In my application for the China tour, I noted my county had a lot of sweet potatoes and a rail line on the eastern side of the county that went to the Port of Gulfport,” Cagle said. “I came back after seeing several facilities in China, and connected the director of the Port of Gulfport with our local elected officials to see if we can’t start shipping more potatoes through there.”
Cagle and Meyers recently attended a Southern United States Trade Association conference. They learned what SUSTA -- a U.S. Farm Bill-funded non-profit trade association --could do for sweet potato growers in Mississippi.
Susan Lawrence, grants management and marketing specialist with the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, noted that growers didn’t necessarily have to look far outside the country to find export markets.
“Canada is our largest export market, followed by China and Mexico. With two of the largest markets here within our own continent, you don’t have to travel across the world to China or Australia,” she said. “You can, but there is a large market potential right here just across the border.”
She also dispelled myths about exporting, such as it being an option only for large businesses and for growers who are fluent in foreign languages. Of U.S. agricultural exporters, 97 percent are small- or medium-sized businesses, she added, with 67 percent of those having 20 or fewer employees.
“With you just staying in the U.S., you are only reaching 5 percent of the world’s consumers,” Lawrence told growers. “The other 95 percent live outside the U.S. That’s a huge opportunity. Companies that export grow faster and are less likely to go out of business than nonexporting businesses.”
Danielle Viguerie Coco, marketing and communications director for SUSTA, described the organization as a foreign arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture that implements promotion programs for small businesses in the South to potential markets.
“Our goal is to help U.S. companies promote U.S. brands in foreign markets,” Coco said. “We make introductions with foreign buyers at trade events, and we can reimburse companies 50 percent of international marketing expenses if they travel abroad.”
She noted that the U.S. exported $172 million in sweet potatoes in 2016.
“We are quite known for this product,” Coco said. “A lot of the exported sweet potatoes are coming from North Carolina right now. Mississippians are also producing quite a lot of sweet potatoes but not exporting them like some other states are.”