Acreage declines, weather cut into sweet potato volumes

07/18/2013 10:32:00 AM
Andy Nelson

A combination of lower acreage nationwide and poor weather in North Carolina should mean strong sweet potato markets in 2013-14.

Acreage in industry leader North Carolina is expected to fall from about 62,000 to 57,000 acres, according to a recent estimate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

Nationwide, about 116,000 acres will be harvested this year, down from 127,000 acres last year, according to the USDA.

Based on the rainy growing season North Carolina growers have had, an additional 5% to 6% in losses can probably be tacked on to the state’s acreage losses, said Jimmy Burch, owner of Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms.

“Rain, rain, rain — it just won’t stop,” Burch said July 12. “It’s the reason we didn’t get the crop in, and now it’s affecting yields.”

As a result, prices will likely be high all the way through Summer 2014, Burch said.

“It’s going to be a very challenging year.”

Instead of being 5,000 acres lower than last season, North Carolina could wind up being 8,000 to 10,000 acres lower, said George Wooten, owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.

In addition, yields could be down because of smaller sizes.

“Jumbos could be very tight next year,” Wooten said.

Acreage is down and yields will likely be down for Wilson, N.C.-based Vick Family Farms, but until harvest starts, it’s hard to tell by exactly how much, said Charlotte Vick, partner and sales and marketing manager.

“We were seriously impacted by the rain, and suspect it’s had an adverse affect and that the crop will be later than normal,” Vick said. “By mid-September, we should be able to make a better assessment.”

The quality and size profile of the sweet potatoes that Burch Farms ships in the coming season should be good, however, assuming Mother Nature provides a little assistance.

“If we can just catch some decent weather I think we’ll be OK,” Burch said.

Because of weather-related delays, growers were targeting a harvest window of October instead of the usual harvest months of August and September, according to a news release from the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

In Mississippi, meanwhile, growers are expecting to harvest about 19,000 acres, down from 22,500 in 2012, said Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.

The council’s estimate is 1,000 acres below the USDA estimate.

The reason for the drop is clear, Graves said.

“The price is off $2 a carton from last year,” he said. “Movement’s been good, but prices are low.”

On July 16, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported prices of $13-15 for 40-pound cartons of No. 1 orange-flesh sweet potatoes from North Carolina, comparable to last year at the same time.

Markets were already beginning to tighten in the first half of July because of low storage supplies in Mississippi and Louisiana, Wooten said.

As of July 12, about 80% of the Mississippi crop was in “excellent” shape, while the balance checked in at “fair,” Graves said. That’s a good ratio for that time of year.

“At this point in time we feel good about the crop,” he said. “We’ve had some timely rains.”

Harvest will likely start about Sept. 1, about a week later than usual, Graves said. Volume shipments should start about Sept. 15.

Despite the lower acreage, Mississippi growers are confident they’ll have enough product to meet customers’ needs in 2013-14, Graves said.



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