It’s been a hot, dry summer in North Carolina. Sweet potato grower-shippers needed some rain and many decided to drag their feet with the harvest, hoping to get a few inches of rain to give that final boost in size.
In the last week of September, that gamble paid off.
Tropical depression Nicole dumped as much as a foot of rain on growing regions across the state. While a few gentle showers would have been sufficient, no one’s complaining.
“We finally got some wonderful rain,” said Jimmy Burch, owner of Burch Farms in Faison, N.C., on Sept. 29. “We were way behind — only about 15% harvested. We’ve gotten 6 inches so far this week.”
The excessive rains likely won’t hurt anything other than low-lying areas, said Jerome Vick, co-owner of Vick Family Farms, Faison.
“We were half-heartedly harvesting, waiting for rain,” he said. “Fortunately, from all the reports, the Covington variety can withstand the water pretty well.”
Waiting on rain did put things behind, but grower-shippers will be able to make it up in the long run.
“We think we can do it, but it’s going to really test our capabilities,” he said. “We will just have to burn the midnight oil a little more. Farmers have a way of responding to disasters. It won’t be easy, but if it was, everyone would be doing it.”
Wada Farms Marketing Group, Idaho Falls, Idaho, expects to start shipping North Carolina sweet potatoes in mid-October, said Shane Watt, director of sweet potatoes.
“The rain helped them size up and also helped with skinning,” he said. “Quality sounds like it is excellent. That’s a combination not only of the warmer weather we had but also the timely rains.”
Don’t expect a huge crop this year, shippers said. Last year’s yields were a bumper crop, tempered by lower yields in other states. This year, volumes nationwide should be about the same because other regions are back up, and North Carolina is back to normal.
The state shipped a little more than 13 million cartons in 2009 and a little more than 10 million in 2008, said George Wooten, owner and president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce, Chadbourn, N.C.
“Yields are down 20%-25% from last year,” he said. “This seems more like what we had in 2008.”
Burch Farms increased its acreage about 10% but expects the same yield as last year, Burch said.
Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission, Smithfield, said most growers told her things are looking good so far this year.
“From the growers I’ve talked with, we don’t anticipate an oversupply at all,” she said.
Prices have held steady for several years, thanks to increasing demand from foodservice and processors, said Stewart Precythe, president of Southern Produce Distributors, Faison.
“I see that trend continuing,” he said. “The market is very stable. I don’t think we’ll ever see cheap sweet potatoes again.”
Precythe said to maintain their operations and cost of production, grower-shippers have to at least make $14-16 f.o.b.
“It costs so much to produce them now,” he said.