There is no use trying to pin down the precise amount of damage caused to the North Carolina sweet potato crop by Hurricane Florence and the remnants of tropical storm Michael.
Many growers saw double-digit rainfall amounts dumped on their fields from Hurricane Florence Sept. 10-11. Adding insult to injury, Michael poured another three to four inches of rain on fields a month later.
However, industry observers said it is still too soon to tell how the excess water will affect total fresh packout and sounded an optimistic tone about the quality of the crop that has been harvested.
Up to when Michael hit about Oct. 12, most growers were perhaps 80% done with harvest, said Lina Quesada-Ocampo, associate professor of plant pathology for the North Carolina State University extension service.
After all the fields are dried out, harvest will wrap up in November or when the first hard frost occurs.
“As far as post-harvest integrity, the good news actually is that we have not had much incidence of disease as we feared so far,” she said Oct. 15. Still, some disease issues may emerge after the sweet potatoes are put in storage for a couple of months.
“The good news is that for (the sweet potatoes) directly coming from the ground, there was not a lot of damage, which was really good,” Quesada-Ocampo said.
The industry won’t know the consequences of the hurricanes until spring of next year, she predicted.
The hurricanes have damaged the crop, but how much is uncertain, said Tami Long, director of marketing and business development for Nash Produce LLC, Nashville, Tenn.
“Everything we’ve got coming in is looking good,” Long said Oct. 16. “All our farmers have reported not having a lot of problems with either one of the hurricanes that came through.”
The USDA reported No. 1 sweet potatoes in 40-pound cartons were trading at $15-16 on Oct. 16, compared with $13-16 the same day a year ago.
Through Oct. 13, season-to-date shipments of North Carolina sweet potatoes totaled 14.9 million pounds, down from 43.2 million pounds the same time a year ago.
Long said that many North Carolina farmers did not plant as many sweet potatoes this year because prices were low last year. With the reduced acreage, she said there are expectations for higher prices for the 2018-19 marketing season.
While no state estimate is available, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said that U.S. sweet potato acreage planted in 2018 is 157,200 acres, compared to 159,300 acres a year ago.