Increased acreage and compliant weather conditions have led to a timely start to the North Carolina sweet potato deal, growers and shippers said.
A year ago, old crop sold for $16-18, with new crop not having reached the market in measurable volumes.
“The 2014 crop is excellent both in production and quality,” said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.
Few weather problems have been reported, unlike 2013, when persistent rains kept harvesters out of the fields and delayed the deal, Johnson-Langdon said.
She said the growing season was good and harvests were fully underway by late September.
Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms, expects a normal crop.
“We were a little late getting in because it’s so cool this year, but we have issues every year, one way or another,” he said, describing yields as average.
Burch represents about 5,500 acres and his company grows on 300.
Perhaps the best news about the 2014 deal is that it will produce enough supplies for year-round shipments — unlike the last year, said George Wooten, president of Chadbourn, N..C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.
“We’re coming off the worst scenario in sweet potato production and inventory that we could have ever had,” he said.
Growers were delayed in plantings a year ago because of weather problems, which led to a later harvest, Wooten said.
“Then, our yields were down because we were set late, and, with acreage down 20% to 25%, we were down in production,” he said.
The reverse was true in 2014, he said.
“Now, with the 2014 season, our window for planting our beds went off fine and started setting potatoes pretty normal, and we had about a 15% increase in acres, which helped us from before,” he said.
Wooten said his crews started harvesting new crop in mid-August, which was earlier than normal.
The early harvesting was especially timely because storage supplies were running low, Wooten said.
“We weren’t maximizing yield, but we were running out of potatoes,” he said. “Normally, we try to run the prior year into September, but this year, we ended up around Aug. 9, so we ran about six weeks short.”
Wooten said it was the first supply gap he had encountered since 1999.
“This year, I don’t anticipate that to happen,” he said.
Barring any unanticipated weather issues, the current crop should be out of the fields by the end of October, Wooten said.
Markets were high as a result of short supplies at the outset of the current deal, Wooten said.
“Demand has been really good. People have been from retail, exports, foodservice — everybody is buying,” he said.
As of Sept. 29, 40-pound cartons of orange-type U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes from eastern North Carolina were $18-22 for new crop, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A year earlier, prices were $16-18 for 2012 crop.
Markets likely would soften as the deal progressed, but returns should remain in the acceptable range, Wooten said.
“I’m expecting $18 potatoes, which is a good price, although we were at $24-25 for August and September,” he said.
Stephanie Williams, sales manager with Scott Farms, Lucama, N.C., said weather had interfered with the early harvest in some areas of the state, but, even in those areas, yields and quality were good.
“Heavy shipments now in the early part of this season could affect the total amount in storage and inventory to last the rest of this year,” she said.
Bob Bassetti, president of Benson-based B&B Produce, also reported some early difficulties with weather, but he said there hadn’t been any insurmountable difficulties.
“I haven’t seen any issues yet,” he said.
There should be enough supplies to meet export demands, Williams said.
Expectations for the 2014 season are high, on the heels of a short crop last year, said Thomas Joyner, general manager of Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce Co.
“Higher acreage should allow inventories and shipments to meet the demand, and the quality of what has been harvested so far is very good,” he said.
Rainfall has been ample, said Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Farm Fresh Produce, Faison.
“We got quite a bit of rain this year, but we also had a lot of sun,” he said. “This year, we had a good balance of that. With every day you got rain, you got sun that followed.”
Charlotte Vick, partner with Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C., said her operation had about 25% of its sweet potatoes harvested by the end of September.
“I think that’s probably what you’re going to find across the state. The crop looks really good, excellent quality and excellent yield,” she said.
That’s a big contrast from last year, Vick said.