North Carolina’s sweet potato acreage declined 15,000 acres this year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The drop is significant considering that the state produces more than half of the nation’s crop.

According to the USDA, North Carolina’s growers planted 83,000 acres of sweet potatoes this year, down from 98,000 a year ago.

Kendall Hill, co-owner of Tull Hill Farms Inc., Kinston, N.C., said the decrease was due, in part, to low prices for the 2016 crop. Hill said one large retailer instituted a bidding process last year in an attempt to control pricing.

Hill said the retailer asked shippers to submit prices, but the buyer rejected all the bids it received in a first round and told the suppliers to try again. After a second round of bidding, the same thing happened, Hill said.

“After the third round, they accepted bids that were $4 lower than we expected,” Hill said. “It ended up being $12 market. A lot of sweet potatoes sold cheaper than that.”


Bidding repeat

The bid process was repeated this year, and the results were no better, Hill said.

“One guy told me he bid $15 for this year, and they told him he was 40% too high,” Hill said. “If something drastic doesn’t happen, sweet potatoes will be in short supply in 2018 and ’19 because we can’t grow them for this kind of money. It doesn’t seem right.”

Although there are plenty of other buyers for the state’s massive crop, Hill said the bid process affects other accounts.

“The lowest price always drives the market,” he said.

The USDA reported Oct. 17 that 40-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes from North Carolina were $13-16.

Hill’s company, which grows about 800 acres of sweet potatoes, sells to larger shippers and doesn’t deal directly with the retailer in question.

Other sources confirmed Hill’s account but declined to comment on the record.

One grower-shipper, who asked not to be identified, said the retailer was Ahold-Delhaize, which operates several banners in the U.S., including Food Lion, Stop & Shop and Hannaford, with nearly 2,000 stores in 23 states.

A spokesperson for the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission declined to comment.

George Wooten, owner of Wayne Bailey Produce, Chadbourn, N.C., didn’t comment directly on the bidding issue, but he said pricing has been flat for several years. Although that means pricing has been relatively stable, it also means growers rarely benefit from spikes in demand as they had in the past.

“That puts pressure on the grower,” Wooten said. “He’s not getting the price he needs for storage, refrigeration and capital.”

Wooten said demand for sweet potatoes is growing in foodservice, but that sector, “likes to get standard prices so that they can fix menus.”

Although acreage is down in the state, Wooten said yields have been roughly 5% higher than a year ago.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Burch Farms, Faison, N.C., said contract pricing for processing actually increased year over year.

“Our processing sales do not affect our fresh market sales pricing,” he said.