( Courtesy Vick Family Farms )

After unfavorable weather conditions last fall, sweet potato yields dropped from 224 cwt. per acre in 2017 to 190 cwt. per acre in 2018. This season producers are looking forward to the new crop to bring better yields.

Sweet potato acreage and yields fell from 2017 to 2018. Acreage fell from 159,300 acres harvested to 144,400 acres and yield dropped 8.27 million cwt. from 35.64 million cwt. to 27.38 million cwt., according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. 

With reduced supply, prices for sweet potatoes are higher than year-ago levels.

U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes from North Carolina traded at $20-22.50 per carton on Aug. 5, up from $12-15 per carton the same time a year ago, according to the USDA.

The USDA reported shipments of North Carolina sweet potatoes totaled 14.2 million 40-pound cartons from August 2018 through July 2019, down from 18.57 million cartons the previous year.

Shipments from Louisiana from August 2018 through July 2019 totaled 1.08 million 40-pound cartons, up slightly from 1.03 million cartons the previous year.

Dealing with weather

“[Hurricane Florence] that hit North Carolina and then the relentless rains in the southern states — Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama — last fall caused the shortage of potatoes this year,” said Kay Retzel, executive director of U.S. Sweet Potato Council Inc. 

Wet weather prevented farmers from getting equipment in the field to harvest the sweet potatoes, Retzel added.

Iota, La.-based Garber Farms lost one third of its 2018 sweet potato crop to wet weather.

“Yields and supply have to be better than last year at Garber Farms,” said Matt Garber, partner at Garber Farms. “We are in a gap in supply waiting on new crop.”

Short supply has led to high prices, Garder added.

Nashville, N.C.-based Nash Produce experienced a similar harvest season.

“We are hopeful that our volume will be higher than last year following harvest loss as a result of two hurricanes during the 2018 harvest season,” said Rebecca Scott, grower accounting/marketing at Nash Produce.

North Carolina accounted for 19.69 million cwt. of sweet potatoes in 2017 and 10.99 million cwt. in 2018. The state also harvested 16,500 fewer acres than in 2016. 

In terms of exports, North Carolina supplies approximately half of exported U.S. sweet potatoes. 

U.S. sweet potato exports saw a drop in supply for the first time in six years in April 2019. 

“The dip is not due to demand, but supply,” said Jerry Hingle, president and CEO of International Trade Associates. “We saw supply fall because we were unable to meet demand in the first part of 2019.”

Supply dropped 11% in volume and 3% in value, Hingle said.

Supply is starting to pick up, and the American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute expects export volume and production to rise to previous levels, Hingle said.

“Weather so far has been favorable to this year’s crop and the sweet potatoes are looking very good at this point,” Garber said.

Scott said the Southeastern region had a difficult start to the season with little rainfall and long periods of high temperatures.

However, harvest is expected to start on time with the peak season being from mid-September to mid-October.

Garber Farms expected to start harvest on time in early September with the peak season being in November, Garber said.

“For me, it’s a lot harder not shipping sweet potatoes than when we are shipping sweet potatoes, so I am very much looking forward to the new crop,” he said.

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