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.

“Movement has been pretty good, but we should be a couple of dollars higher because potatoes are going to be out before the new crop comes in,” he said.

North Carolina typically starts its harvest in the last week of August, Hill said.

“Better chains like cured product all year, and it’s going to be hard to do that this year, because supplies are going to be short,” he said.

Heavy rains came just in time for last year’s North Carolina crop, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc.

“Last year, North Carolina had one of the best crops it ever had, and one of the best crops I ever had,” he said.

“Yields were up and quality was up, but yields and quality usually go together.”

It almost didn’t work out that way, he said.

“I’ve been in this 40 years and this was the only time I’ve ever seen a 14- to 16-inch rain make a crop instead of take a crop,” he said.

“We got 6 or 7 inches out of that first rain and it soaked it up like a sponge. About three or four days later, we got another 6 or 7 inches. We got some tropical depressions came in. That made the crop.”

Mississippi and Louisiana, meanwhile, hope to bounce back after two straight years of rain-shortened crops.

“I feel real comfortable that we’ve got a good crop in storage,” said Benny Graves, executive director of the Vardaman-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council.

“I think we’ll have some good Easter movement and we’ll go in after Easter, and I would hope the price will stabilize and maybe firm up a little bit. I feel real comfortable we’re going to move the crop and go cure to cure. That’s all real good.”

Mississippi harvested 21,000 acres in 2010, up from the 19,200 it had in 2009.

Louisiana reported 13,000 acres in its report to the U.S. Sweet Potato Council.

Some growers and shippers in North Carolina reported selling product to colleagues in Louisiana and Mississippi, where rain cut into more than half the crop in 2009.

“Mississippi had some real shortages,” Wooten said.

“They lost 60% of their crops in 2009 with too much rain, and Louisiana had a short crop. So, the market was higher last year than it is now.”

Conditions were much-improved over 2009 and 2008, according to a report to the U.S. Sweet Potato Council from Tara Smith, extension specialist with the Louisiana State University AgCenter in Chase.

“The majority of yields reported thus far are average compared to 2007, our last harvest season not impacted by excessive rain,” she said.

California estimated 2010 production of 576 million pounds on 18,000 acres, according to a report filed with the council by Scott Stoddard, farm adviser to the University of California Cooperative Extension office in Merced.



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