Shorter volumes and peaking interest in the product have sweet potato marketers smiling in 2014.
Sweet potato production volume across the U.S. totaled 2.48 billion pounds in 2013, compared to 2.65 billion pounds a year earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
North Carolina, the top sweet potato-producing state, shipped 1.06 billion pounds in 2013, down from 1.24 billion the previous year.
California, the No. 2-producing state, saw production volume go up in 2013, to 684 million pounds, from 617 million a year earlier.
The four largest states in production are North Carolina, California, Louisiana and Mississippi. Combined, they account for more than 90% of U.S. production, according to USDA.
“It’s about 15% lower, at least,” George Wooten, owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based sweet potato grower-shipper Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., said of North Carolina’s 2013 production.
Various natural — and manmade — factors led to the shorter crop, Wooten said.
“We had a pretty big crop (in 2012), and we thought inventory was going to carry over, so acreage was cut back,” he said.
Adverse weather also figured into fewer acres planted, he said.
Yields, however, were up, however, as USDA reported a take of 219 cwt. per acre, which was up 4.8% from 209 cwt. in 2012.
“It grew to a nice middle-range size, and yield is based on pounds,” Wooten said.
Lower volumes translated into higher prices, according to the USDA, which reported Feb. 24 that f.o.b. prices on 40-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 orange-type sweet potatoes from North Carolina were $16-18, compared to $13-15 a year earlier.
At the close of February, there was plenty of product on offer in Mississippi, if shippers could procure transportation, said Benny Graves, executive secretary with the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.
“Movement has been pretty good if we can get trucks from snowbound areas,” Graves said.
Truck availability seems to be an annual issue, he said.
Marketing agents target Easter — April 20 this year — as their first major marketing event of the season, Graves said.
“We’ll have a big push,” he said, describing Easter as the third-largest holiday marketing period, trailing only Christmas and Thanksgiving.
Sales over the latter two holiday periods lend hope for a profitable Easter season, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc.
“This year, the Thanksgiving and Christmas movement was good, even though the crop was short due to the rain we had last year,” he said.
Easter may be the last stand for some growers until the next crop comes in, Precythe said.
“There will be enough overall to go to the new crop, but there are people that won’t make it to the new crop. I’d say there will be people who are out after Easter,” he said.
Total acreage in 2013 was 113,200, which was down from 126.6 a year earlier, USDA reported.
While rain cut into last year’s crop in many areas, California growers’ concerns rest on the opposite side of the moisture spectrum.
A potential lack of water could be a major problem in the Golden State, as 2014 unfolds, growers there say.
“The biggest thing, of course, is finding land that has a well on it,” said Duane Hutton, manager of Yagi Bros. Produce Inc., a grower-shipper based in Livingston, Calif.
Some land that has been traditionally farmed for sweet potatoes simply isn’t farmable with just canal water, he said.
“For an 80-acre field on canal, you can farm 40 acres and leave 40 fallow,” Hutton said.
Some growers might ponder planting earlier varieties that won’t have to deal with possible later-season water shortages, he said.
California harvested 19,000 acres a year ago, and growers will be challenged to match that this year, Hutton said.
Sarah Alvernaz, general manager and salesperson with Livingston-based California Sweet Potato Growers, said some growers appear to be in better position than others, where the water outlook is concerned.
“I think every individual grower is in a different position and it depends on what irrigation district they’re in,” she said, noting she anticipates an overall decrease in acreage for 2014.
“Fortunately, there’s groundwater still we can pump — as long as a grower has pumps,” Alvernaz said.