Sweet times for sweet potatoes, marketers say - The Packer

Sweet times for sweet potatoes, marketers say

03/08/2011 12:13:41 PM
Jim Offner

Sweet potato production areas in the South — especially Louisiana and Mississippi — anticipate strong rebounds from the 2008 and 2009 harvests that were slammed by heavy rains.

North Carolina growers and shippers, meanwhile, say they are coming off one of the best years ever in 2010 and expect further gains in 2011.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolina, which accounts for 47% of U.S. sweet potato production, saw acreage increase to 54,000 in 2010, from 46,000 a year earlier. Yield averaged 180 cwt. per acre, 20 cwt. less than the 2009 record of 200. Total production, at 9.72 million cwt., set a record in 2010, eclipsing the 9.2 million cwt. logged in 2009.

“Last year was the best year we ever had,” said Jimmy Burch, owner of Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms. “I’m planning for a repeat this year.”

He said a consistently strong market was reason to set his plan that way.

“Prices are good,” he said. “They’re not quite a strong as last year, but the volume is bigger, so it works out to the same thing.”

Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director with the Smithfield-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission, said March 4 that “overall, shipments are neck-and-neck with last year.”

The processed category is making gains, too.

“Processing, with the advent of the fries, has been exponential,” she said.

Art Bridgman, owner of Bridgman Vegetable Farms, a specialty variety producer in Roseboro, N.C., said the market for his products was strong.

“They’ve been fairly high,” he said, referring to the Japanese sweet potatoes. “Ours is a niche market. We don’t need a big volume.”

The market, which typically is in the $14-16 range for 40-pound cartons, was edging up, said George Wooten, president and owner of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.

“The demand nationwide compared to last year is up 7%, so consumption is up,” Wooten said.

“The french fry market is becoming such a huge part, they’re pouring a lot of what we might use as fresh to the processor facilities. A fair amount that would have gone to the fresh market has gone to fries.”

As of March 4, according to the USDA, 40-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 orange-type sweet potatoes from North Carolina were priced at $18-21.

Henry Chancy, owner of Dunn, N.C.-based Millstream Farms, described the market in similar terms.

“The market is good. There’s plenty of demand and prices are, I’d say, fair,” said Chancy, who grows on about 1,100 acres.

Kendall Hill, co-owner of Kinston, N.C.-based Tull Hill Farms Inc., said prices should be higher.

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