SPRING HOPE, N.C. — Despite slightly smaller yields, North Carolina sweet potato growers say retailers should expect normal quality and shipments.

Though some grower-shippers planned to start shipping new crop cured shipments in late September, most packers expected to begin in early to mid-October, as normal.

“So far, the season is looking good,” Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., said in mid-September. “We’re hitting some places where the sweet potatoes have really grown. There are a few more jumbos than we would like, while other places aren’t quite as ready.

Precythe said growers experienced ideal growing conditions and said the season should bring retailers high quality and adequate supplies throughout the year.

He said the old crop was disappearing fast and characterized early crop yields as lower than expected.

Sources estimated early yields down about 20% on jumbos and on No. 1 mediums, but quality is excellent.

Many growers started in late August, including Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, which commenced harvesting Aug. 27.

While favorable weather allowed growers to transplant most of their crop earlier than normal, that early start didn’t translate into an earlier-than-normal harvest, George Wooten, president, said in mid-September.

“In one sense, this harvest is more normal than what is has been in the last two years,” he said. “Our yields don’t look that heavy but the quality looks really good. There’s just not a heavy set on the vine.”

Growers normally begin harvesting in late August and finish by late October.

“We may not have hit a home run, but we hit a double this year in terms of comparison to last year,” said Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Mount Olive-based Farm Fresh Produce. “The crop looks fantastic. Compared to last year in terms of yield, our understanding is it will be a little below last year’s numbers, which were phenomenal.”

Daniel Bissett, president of Bissett Produce Co. Inc., agreed the season is bringing high quality.

“The quality is as good as I’ve seen in the last 10 years,” he said in late August.

Wilson-based Vick Family Farms, which expects to harvest 600,000 bushels from 1,200 acres, similar to last season, began harvesting Aug. 27.

“The quality and the crop seem to be excellent,” Charlotte Vick-Ferrell, partner, said in mid-September. “It’s just a little on the short side.”

In mid-September, Vick was shipping old-crop sweet potatoes and planned to start new crop shipments by late October.

In late September, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 40-pound boxes of orange variety No. 1s from North Carolina fetching $13-15, U.S. No. 1 petites selling for $10-12 and U.S. No. 2s for $7-9.

That’s lower than last season in early October when the USDA reported $16 for the No. 1s during the first of the 2011 new crop shipments.

North Carolina growers planted 65,000 acres, similar to last year, according to the USDA.

Those acres are expected to produce 15 million cartons of fresh production, Wooten said.

“The reports we see are relatively flat,” said Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nashville-based Nash Produce Co. “We had good sales and good quality last year. In order to store a good crop for a year, we have to put a good crop in storage. That’s what we were able to do last year and hope to do this year.”