North Carolina sweet potatoes running late, bringing high prices

09/17/2013 04:00:00 PM
Doug Ohlemeier

A later-than-normal North Carolina sweet potato deal and lower acreage is bringing higher fall prices. Some grower-shippers have run out of old crop potatoes and those that have supplies say they expect availability to remain tight until the new crop finishes curing in late October, about a month behind usual. Heavy rains that struck during May and June plant settings delayed harvesting from the typical mid- to late August start to mid-September. The shorter crop could also mean higher Thanksgiving promotion prices, grower-shippers warn. This year’s crop is expected to be 20% smaller than last year, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc. Southern didn’t start harvesting until Sept. 9 and Precythe said the deal is running at least four weeks late. “We have good supply now and the crop is better than what I expected with these early potatoes,” Precythe said in mid-September. “I am happy with what we’re seeing now. With all the rain they had on them in June, we are very pleased with the quality. What they’re digging looks really good.” Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., began harvesting in a light manner on Sept. 9. George Wooten, president, said lower national sweet potato acreage combined with North Carolina weather-related planting delays should equate to smaller supplies and higher Thanksgiving prices. He said the numbers of potatoes per-hill is light. While the fields usually yield five to six potatoes per mound, this year is bringing three to four. Wooten said he’s not sure if the lighter set will produce heavy or light yields. “With the decline in acreage nationwide, and we’re not seeing the numbers in yield either, this crop could be off 20%-25%,” Wooten said in mid-September. “Supplies should be adequate because we will need to market this crop over a period of time and need so many dollars out of the crop. If we reduce prices a lot at Thanksgiving, there won’t be a lot of inventory to make up the differences.” Wooten characterizes quality as high. Burch Farms in Faison finished shipping all of its old crop cured sweet potatoes Sept. 6 and in mid-September, was shipping uncured green potatoes. Jimmy Burch, co-owner, said he’s advising his retail customers to buy only what they need and not replenish until after three or so days. Sweet potatoes generally require 30-45 days of curing after harvest. In mid-September, Burch said only two of his growers were harvesting and said he expects to begin shipping new crop cured product during the first week of October. “It’s a smaller crop but quality looks nice,” Burch said in mid-September. “There will be very few jumbos this year. That’s what’s driving the yields down.” September prices reflect the anticipated lower volume. In mid-September, Wooten reported orange variety sweet potatoes from eastern North Carolina selling for $18-20 for 40-pound boxes of orange variety No. 1s. Last year, in mid-September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported $13-15 for those same cartons and variety. Wooten said he expects prices to remain firm.



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