Heavy rains this year have delayed the southern sweet potato crop. Here, one of Wada Farms’ growers’ sweet potato seed beds have standing water on them on May 24, at a field in Princeton, N.C.
Heavy rains this year have delayed the southern sweet potato crop. Here, one of Wada Farms’ growers’ sweet potato seed beds have standing water on them on May 24, at a field in Princeton, N.C.

A wet year has caused delays and possible shortages in sweet potato crops in the South, growers say.

“The rain has affected a lot of areas, and I think harvest will be two to three weeks later than normal,” said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Inc, Chadbourn, N.C.

Kim Matthews, co-owner of Wynne, Ark.-based Matthews Ridgeview Farms, says she expects their crop to only be about a week late at this point.

“We’ll be harvesting late,” she said.

Wooten says the delayed harvest also likely will mean smaller potatoes.

“With the delayed crop, we probably won’t have as many jumbo sweet potatoes as we normally do,” he said.

Delays could affect holiday volumes

Norman Brown, director of sales for the Raleigh, N.C. office of Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, says he’s concerned about the upcoming holiday season.

“Thanksgiving is a big mover of sweet potatoes, and the late start may not give us enough product to get through the holiday,” he said.

The issues began at planting time, said Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Southern Produce Distributors Inc., Faison, N.C.

“When we were transplanting the crop into the field, we had a lot of rain, which got us behind,” he said.

Typically, plants go into the ground between May 15 and June 20, said Precythe, though this year some growers were still planting in July.

It’s still undetermined how the crop will be affected by the late start, although harvest will be later and it’s likely to be smaller.

“Some are predicting the crop to be 10% short. Personally, I think it’s at least 20% short, and it could be shorter depending on the weather we have between now and harvest,” Precythe said.

One reason the outlook is so unpredictable is that the rain varied largely in different areas.

“In a three-mile difference in area, you could have several inches difference in rainfall,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Smithfield, N.C.-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

Some locations may be more affected, depending on the soil content.

“Where the soil was too heavy, those fields are likely to have extremely light yields, if any at all,” said Kendall Hill, co-owner of Tull Hill Farms, Kinston, N.C.

However, with as much as 40 inches of rain in June and July, Hill said, there’s likely to be lower yields all around.

“The rest of the crop will also have a setback,” he said.

Hoping for optimal fall weather

Growers need higher temperatures and sunny skies in the coming months.

“We’re hoping we have a good fall with good growing conditions. We need that 85- and 95-degree weather,” Precythe said.

An early freeze would be bad news for growers.

“If we have an early frost, it could be the shortest crop in North Carolina in 20 or 30 years, but it all depends on the weather in September and October,” Precythe said.

Matt Garber, partner at Garber Farms, Iota, La., is optimistic about Louisiana’s crop.

“Right now, the expectation is for an average harvest,” he said.

Garber also hopes the season won’t start too late.

“Most of Louisiana’s crop got put in a little later than normal, but the harvest could be about the same as it normally is,” he said.

In addition to the rain delays, sweet potato acreage in the South is down.

Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, Columbia, S.C., says acreage is down about 11%, according to information from the National Agriculture Statistics Service.

“In 2012, the production estimates had 135,500 acres. The forecast for this year is only 116,100,” he said.

The shorter supplies likely will be especially noticed in the spring and summer of next year.

Current pricing

Sweet potatoes out of North Carolina were shipping at $15-16 for 40-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 orange-type potatoes; $10-13 for U.S. No. 1 petite; $7-9 for U.S. No. 2; and $8-10 for ungraded jumbos. according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

“I do believe it will affect the potential summer market because acreage is down, and the demand seems to be going up,” Wooten said.

Wooten said growers were uncomfortable with last year’s high acreage.

“Some prices came down below production costs, so it didn’t make sense to plant as much,” he said.