California sweet potato harvest begins

08/06/2008 12:00:00 AM
Don Schrack


Workers pack sweet potatoes at Yagi Bros. Produce Inc., Livingston, Calif. Yagi Bros. general manager Duane Hutton says the start of the harvest was a few days late, but the early-season yields were about average.

(Aug. 6, 3:48 p.m.) After surviving a couple of spring weather hurdles, the California sweet potato crop is back on schedule.

Harvest began in late July, and grower-shippers said production will meet demand through the holidays and into the new year.

A mid-April frost, followed by two days of extremely high winds in May, killed thousands of young plantings, also known as slips. As many as 3,000 acres had to be replanted, said Scott Stoddard, farm adviser for the Merced County office of the University of California Cooperative Extension Service.

The state’s sweet potato acreage this year is more than 14,000 acres, Stoddard said, up from 13,000 acres in 2007.

“Our sweet potato acreage has been growing at a rate of about 7% a year for the past 4 or 5 years,” Stoddard said.

One reason for the acreage increase is growing consumer demand for the oriental variety, said Jeremy Fookes, a salesman with AV Thomas Produce, Livingston, Calif.

“It’s really versatile in that it doesn’t mush when boiled or cooked,” Fookes said. “We’re seeing more and more attention on the oriental variety.”

By Aug. 6, harvesting at AV Thomas Produce was limited to the red, beauregard and oriental varieties, Fookes said. Due to the replanting, digging of the sweet varieties was delayed, but supplies will pick up in mid- to late August, he said.

California sweet potatoes do a lot of sizing up in August, Stoddard said.

The early harvest produced good quality and yield for growers represented by the Livingston Farmers Association, Livingston, Calif., said sales assistant Valerie Kimura. The state’s water shortage will not be a problem for the cooperative’s growers, she said, because most of them use drip irrigation.

Prices for early season sweet potatoes have been strong, because the California pipeline had been depleted, Kimura said.

Prices were in the low $30s for 40-pound boxes of reds, beauregards and orientals in late July and early August, Fookes said. The U.S. Department of Agriculture was scheduled to begin reporting f.o.b.s on sweet potatoes from the Atwater-Livingston district of California Aug. 11.

Sales were brisk in early August, said Duane Hutton, general manager for Yagi Bros. Produce Inc., Livingston. The start of the harvest was a few days late, he said, but the early-season yields were about average.

Production of organic sweet potatoes has increased in California.

“California supplies the entire nation when it comes to organic production,” Fookes said.

AV Thomas has nearly 2,000 acres of organic sweet potatoes, and that represents about 80% of the state’s organic production, he said.

Stoddard said the average yield in California is 680-700 boxes per acre. But volume could be on the light side this year.

“You’re never going to get as good a yield on replant situations,” Stoddard said. “You never know what’s going on with the crop until harvest.”

Grower-shippers said the harvest would continue into October or until the first hard frost.

A consolation sweet potato growers are afforded — unlike table grape and stone fruit growers — is that the harvest is not time-sensitive.

“There is no problem with leaving the potato in the field,” Hutton said. “Cut off the water, and it’s kind of like storing it in the ground until digging it.”



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