Despite a challenging season, North Carolina’s premium sweet potatoes are set to hit supermarket shelves and dinner tables in time for Thanksgiving and winter holidays.
“Between COVID-19 and crazy weather, 2020 has been a unique year,” said grower Brent Leggett, president of Leggett Farming Partnership, Nashville, N.C., and board president for the North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.
Though this year’s crop averaged seven to 10 days late, Leggett, who began harvesting Sept. 10, expects to be finished by early November.
Charlotte Vick, partner in Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C., said the cool, wet spring left sprouts slow to mature, delaying planting. Summer brought long periods of drought followed by excessive rainfall, which also slowed down the maturing crop.
“By mid-September, a lot of growers still hadn’t begun harvest,” said Vick, who began harvesting Aug. 15. Yields seem to be smaller than last year, she said, which could be attributed to the tough growing season.
“It’s been a very wet season, to say the least,” said Steven Ceccarelli, CEO of Farm Fresh Produce, Faison N.C., which began harvesting Aug. 24.
“With a late start, only time can tell how much yield/acreage is lost due to wet spots in the field,” Ceccarelli said.
“But quality seems good with very little pest damage. Last year’s crop is very thin, but Farm Fresh is still fulfilling orders for loyal customers.”
So far, the fall weather has been cooperating, Vick said, and quality is excellent.
“We just keep praying we don’t get any more hurricanes come our way in October.”
Demand has been surprisingly good, she said, especially since summer is normally a slower time.
“This season we kept a good steady demand all summer long.”
Despite abnormally cool temperatures for late September, Nash Produce, based in Nashville, is still on schedule for a successful harvest, said Rebecca Scott, grower accounting and marketing director.
As for last year’s crop, most of it has already been packed out, said Leggett.
“There’s still some old crop being packed as the new crop is being cured,” he said, “but I think everything will balance out just fine.”
Vick said supply went a little longer than last season due to a larger 2019 harvest.
As expected, COVID-19 has placed a great deal of pressure on the sweet potato industry, shutting down foodservice and processors. Retail is the one shining light as people stay home and shutdowns continue.
“Thankfully, we have a solid retail customer base that has moved a lot of sweet potatoes during these uncertain times,” Vick said.
Domestic market movement remains strong, said Ceccarelli, with opportunities available thanks to government-assisted programs. But with the holidays approaching, nobody knows how family gatherings and travel will turn out.
“Foodservice seems to have picked up as states open up and allow people to go out to eat,” he said, “and processing in North America remains steady compared to past years, though prices appear to be falling.”
Coupled with the drop in foodservice sales, growers have experienced numerous supply chain bottlenecks, said Michelle Grainger, new executive director for the Benson-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.
“Like everyone else, we wish we could identify the challenges still to come,” Grainger said, “but we do know that eating healthy superfoods, such as the sweet potato, is of great interest to consumers.”
People in quarantine at home are keen to know where their food comes from and how to creatively prepare it, she said. “Those interests can only help serve our producers and industry going forward.”
At retail, Vick sees a transition to reusable packaging including RPCs, while microwavable potatoes and steamer bags have been flying off shelves.
Sweet potato tray packs appear to be the hottest new value-added product. Vick is launching a 4-count tray pack in November, while Nash Produce has already seen a positive response to its new 3- and 4-count trays, the latest addition to its popular Mr. Yam line.
“Tray packs are convenient, allowing customers to quickly select pre-washed, U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes for a family or larger group,” said Scott.
Vick said packaged sweet potatoes help move more product compared to consumers buying one or two loose items, and pre-packaged items work better for online shopping and home delivery boxes, which have become the norm with COVID-19.
Overseas, where Farm Fresh ships 90% of its crop, Ceccarelli said European Union movement remains strong for anyone who still has old crop inventory available.
Vick, whose family ships 50% of its crop into the EU, Canada and Mexico, believes export sales are stronger than domestic sales because as more areas of the world develop and become wealthier, they want to add this U.S. superfood to their diets, “which is certainly good for our industry.”