As sweet potato marketers step up their efforts, they’re finding they have more product to sell.
There’s a mixed message in that news, said Charles Walker, executive secretary of the Columbia, S.C.-based U.S. Sweet Potato Council.
“I hear the movement is fine, and we’ll probably have enough product to last until the new crop starts in,” he said.
But growers say they’re not particularly happy with the prices they’re seeing on the markets, Walker said.
“They think they should be getting $1-2 per carton more than what they’re getting, but if the market doesn’t want to give it to you, I don’t know what you can do,” Walker said.
As of March 4, 40-pound cartons of orange U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes from eastern North Carolina were priced at $13-15, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year earlier, they were $14-16.
U.S. production in 2012 was 2.65 billion pounds, compared with 1.28 billion 10 years earlier, according to the USDA.
Total acreage in the U.S. in 2011 — the last year for which that statistic is available from the USDA — was 130,300 acres, up from 82,300 in 2002. Yields during the same period increased about 33%, from 156 cwt. per acre in 2002 to 208 cwt. in 2011, Walker said. California growers’ yield led the U.S., at 320 cwt. in 2011. North Carolina’s yield averaged 200 cwt., which is the first time that state had surpassed the 200 mark, Walker said.
“All of these places are showing an increase in yield, which is good for the industry,” Walker said.
He credited the work of researchers and state agriculture extension efforts, as well as newer and better varieties, for boosting yields.
North Carolina remains the most prolific sweet potato-producing state, with 1.24 billion pounds in 2012, according to the USDA. California was next, at 617 million pounds. Those two, along with Louisiana and Mississippi, account more than 90% of U.S. sweet potato production, Walker said.
Volume coming out of other states but not reflected in NASS data may be contributing to downward price pressures, Walker said.
“I think you’re going to see some acreage has gone into some other states, and that might be contributing to some of the weakness in some of the prices,” he said.
An Agriculture Census that is due out in 2014 may provide some evidence, he said.
“If we see there is some large acreage going in other states, we’d go to the NASS and say we ought to collect production from this state, that state and that state,” he said.
Some growers and shippers said they might have to cut back on acreage.
“It’s getting where acres will be down this year. There’s no profit in it this year,” said Jimmy Burch, owner of Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms.
Growth has come too quickly, he said.
“We’ve expanded too much, and consumption can’t keep up with it,” Burch said.
One possible solution is international markets, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison-based of Southern Produce Distributors Inc.
“We have an overseas business that’s helping drive the market. The movement over there is tremendous,” he said.
Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.’s shipments are at an all-time high of 30 million cartons a year, said owner George Wooten.
Kendall Hill, co-owner of Tull Hill Farms Inc., Kinston, N.C., described the sweet potato market as “unrealistically low” and laid blame on “poor marketing by the grower-shippers in North Carolina.”
They will have to “wake up” or “go broke,” Hill said.
“You can’t do anything below the cost of production, and we’re selling sweet potatoes from North Carolina below the cost of production,” Hill said.
Hill pointed to one grower-shipper, Nashville, N.C.-based Bissett Produce Co. Inc., which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in mid-February.
“If this keeps up, it will be like dominoes,” he said.”