Southern sweet potato shippers are set to enjoy a strong market to start the season this fall, with tight supplies creating high demand.

Some companies struggled to keep sweet potatoes in stock until the new season began.

“Demand for sweet potatoes has been exceeding supplies, and two short crops in a row hasn’t helped out either. This year we expect to be back on track with acreage similar to 2012 and the North Carolina crop looks to be of very good quality,” said Jeff Scramlin, director of business development of the Raleigh, N.C. office of Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC.

Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co. ran out of sweet potatoes in August, the first time owner George Wooten Jr., can remember that happening since 1989.

“It wasn’t the shortest crop I’ve ever seen, but the shortest one since we really started pushing year-round supply,” Wooten said.

The shortage caused some earlier digging this year, as growers were eager to get into the fields as soon as possible to help start meeting that demand

“We’re digging a little premature to have potatoes, so we’re sacrificing a little on yields, but really, they are good enough to start digging and should be better this year,” Wooten said, mentioning the market was really strong.

“Pricing is probably as high as I’ve ever seen it,” Wooten said.

“We believe prices for new crop will remain above average,” Scramlin said.

Others agreed early harvest might impact yields slightly, but that results should still be good.

“Time will tell on yields, given the later than ideal planting and pressure to get in the field early to fill supply gaps, we may end up with an average yielding crop,” said Jason Chandler, director of new crops, Black Gold Farms, Grand Forks, N.D.

Of course, a strong beginning doesn’t mean a good year is a given for growers.

“Everyone is watching to see how this year’s harvest will go,” said Graves. “Things can always change.”

In other areas, growers had more water than normal and found both benefits and challenges with that.

“We have had unusual weather with an unseasonably cool January and extra water. It could hurt or help us,” said Kim Matthews, co-owner of Matthews Ridgeview Farms, Wynne, Ark.

“We have seen a lot of pests,” she said, mentioning that could be a result of the unusual weather.

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., said North Carolina has increased acreage this year.

“We needed that increase because last year was way down after the wet weather during transplants. Our supplies were very limited,” Precythe said.

Chandler said the increase is small, but evenly spread over the industry.

“Acreage is up slightly from 2013, some of the increase is on fresh market acres and some on the processing acres,” he said.

Harvest isn’t expected to reach its peak until the second week of September, with the season running about a week behind its regular schedule for some growers due to weather.

Early digging began around the 18th of August, Graves said.

“This spring was wet for several of our growers. Our growers in North Carolina are running about 10-21 days behind due to spring rains,” said Shanan Cox, director of national accounts, Market Fresh Produce, LLC, Nixa, Mo.

Companies across the southern states are hopeful for a good season to follow last year’s disappointing one.

“Early estimates show a good crop. Not a huge crop, but a good crop, with outstanding quality,” said Trey Boyette, sales, SMP Southeast, Vardaman, Miss.