Sweet potatoes are harvested in a North Carolina field. ( Courtesy Burch Farms )

As mid-September approached, some sweet potato growers in North Carolina said they were praying for rain.

Then, Hurricane Florence rumbled ashore Sept. 14-15 and brought too much of a good thing, the same growers said.

“From Wilson to Greenfield, everybody had about 15 inches of water — some places, more,” said Kendall Hill, co-owner of Kinston, N.C.-based grower-shipper Tull Hill Farms Inc.

That was only the first chapter in a larger unfolding disaster, Hill said.The Benson-based North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission said it would take time to assess the hurricane’s fallout.

After Hurricane Florence left the state, some shippers said crop damage could total 25% to 35% of the crop.

With more than half of the crop remaining to be harvested when Florence hit, the waterlogged fields could play on storage quality in the months ahead, some shippers said.

Prices for North Carolina sweet potatoes jumped $2 to $14-16 per carton on Sept. 19 and were trading at $15-16 per carton on Oct. 1.

“At this time, growers and farmers throughout the state are still assessing their fields following Hurricane Florence,” Kelly McIver, the commission’s executive director, said Sept. 17 in a news release.

“North Carolina sweet potato growers are resilient, and we remain optimistic about the potential impact of the storm. We are committed to continuing to produce the largest distribution of sweet potatoes in the country.”

Growers also worked “day and night” to prepare for Florence, and those preparations may prove as valuable as their actions following the storm, McIver said earlier.

Covington, a big-selling North Carolina sweet potato variety, has shown itself to be “fairly weather-tolerant,” McIver said.

Hill said his crop had survived the storm.

“Our crop is OK, but we had 17 inches of rain in the gauge at my house,” he said.

“We have sweet potatoes within a mile of my house. In my area, I know we had 15 inches, and there are probably 3,000 acres of sweet potatoes in that area.”

George Wooten, president of Chadbourn, N.C.-based grower-shipper Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., said it would take some time to assess damage.

 

Acreage down

Prior to the storm, growers said they expected acreage to continue a downward trend and yields this year to be about average.

Some growers estimated sweet potato acreage would be down by 20,000 acres, compared to 2016.

The commission did not have any official acreage estimates, but it did say acreage in 2017 had slipped by about 10%.

“Acres are down, and yields are looking like they are, too, but we’re only on the front side of this crop, and that’s not necessarily an indicator of what the rest of the crop is like,” said Thomas Joyner, president of Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce Co.

Official acreage totals were due out in mid-October, the commission said.

Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc. was anticipating a crop somewhere near the norm, said Brenda Oglesby, sales director.

“The crop so far has average yields and great quality,” she said.

Before Florence rolled in, sweet potato yields were looking to be down by about 25% from the previous year, said Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Faison-based Burch Farms.

“We’re going to be off by about 25% from last year, on yields. We’re down 10,000 acres because growers aren’t making any money.

“Everybody’s started digging; we’re taking 75-100 bushels (per acre) less than last year,” he said.

Prices remained low, Burch said.

He noted that the previous two years had been “a bloodbath” on prices.

“Some guys are quitting and retiring, and some of them are switching to cotton or (other crops),” he said.

Hill noted a dramatic drop in acreage across North Carolina.

“Our acreage in 2016 was 93,000 acres in North Carolina; in ’17, acreage was 78,000 acres; in ’18, it was 77,000 acres, so over the last two years, we’ve gone down 20,000 acres,” he said.

“That’s strictly related to the price you can sell them for.”

Editor Tom Karst contributed to this story.

 
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