Sweet potatoes for sales at Lazy Acres Natural Market in San Diego. ( Ashley Nickle )

Two hurricanes and heavy rain elsewhere in the southeastern U.S. at the critical sweet potato harvesting time means volume from the 2018 crop isn’t as high as other years.

And when supply is lower, the basics of eco can happen: Consumer demand outpaces what’s available, said Erica Barajas, marketing manager for Boyette Bros. Produce LLC, Wilson, N.C.

“We expect to see a high demand for sweet potatoes between now and the summer months, as many growers were affected by Hurricane Florence last fall,” Barajas said.

In 2017, North Carolina produced about half the nation’s sweet potatoes, valued at more than $346 million, but that’s expected to change somewhat, according to the Oct. 2018 Vegetable and Pulses Outlook by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

Hurricane Florence deluged North Carolina last September, stretching 450 miles wide while dropping record-breaking rain, including seven inches in a day in one region. 
Then Hurricane Michael slammed into the Florida Panhandle as a category 4 storm in October.

Those devastating storms, plus heavy rains after a dry summer in Mississippi, Louisiana, Arkansas and Alabama, as well as North Carolina, created some “harvest challenges,” said Kay Rentzel, executive director of U.S. Sweet Potato Council Inc.

“We are not expecting to have a surplus, but we should be able to get through until the 2019 harvest,” Rentzel said.

Wholesale prices of orange U.S. grade No. 1 sweet potatoes from North Carolina ranged from $14-16 at Hunts Point Produce Market in Bronx, N.Y., the week ending Nov. 25, 2017. That range jumped to $20-22 for the same week in 2018.

“Our farmers are pretty much seeing $4-6 a box increase over last year for USDA No. 1 orange sweet potatoes,” said René Simon, director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission, about the 40-pound crates.

National retail prices for sweet potatoes were 94 cents per pound to $1.97 per pound for the week ending Feb. 22, according to the Agricultural Marketing Service. 
That range is a slight increase from the same time last year, when it was 93 cents to $1.75 per pound.

In the Southeast, the weighted average price was 96 cents per pound on Feb. 22, compared to 93 cents the same time last year.

In 2019, North Carolina has shipped 1.3 million cartons of the 2018 season’s sweet potatoes, according to the Jan. 31 marketing service movement report, which is a dip from the same time last year, which showed shipments at 1.56 million cartons. 

Louisiana is experiencing a supply dip too, although the quality and size of what they’ve harvested is good, Simon said.

“We had a great, great growing season, but because all those long fall rains, it just stayed wet; it didn’t dry. We had limited days to get in the field. It was a tough fall,” Simon said. 

“We had a couple farmers who had to leave crops in the field.”

Most growers were able to salvage much of their crop, but they’ll have to monitor their bins closely for signs of rotting during storage, he said.

Mature sweet potatoes are bedded in March, producing green sprouts, called slips, which are then planted in May or June. If all goes well, harvest is from Oct. 1 to Nov. 1, Simon said.

Sweet potatoes then cure in 90-degree temperatures at low humidity for about two weeks to intensify sweetness and strengthen the skin. 

Then the potatoes can sit in dark, cold storage for eight to 10 months, so the commodity is well-suited to the increasing consumer demand for it year-round. Sweet potato

Weather wasn’t the only challenge for the 2018 season. Labor shortages and costs continue to put a strain on the industry, Rentzel and Simon said. 

“Hand labor is necessary from the transplant phase of production through harvest,” Rentzel said. 

“The local labor pool is nearly non-existent in many areas, so the need for reforms within the agricultural guest worker program are vital.”

Louisiana has hardly any local farm workers, Simon said, and depends almost all on H-2A non-immigrant workers allowed to come to the U.S. for temporary or seasonal agricultural work. However, complaints about freight costs have quieted a bit this season, he said. 

Still, holding onto the acreage is yet another challenge, Simon said, as growers convert from producing sweet potatoes for the fresh market to growing the crop for processing plants, especially fries — or using the land for something else entirely.

Even so, domestic demand for fresh sweet potatoes has been increasing 3% to 5% year after year, and exports too, with 14% to 15% of the crop exporting mostly to Canada and Europe, Simon said.

“People are realizing the health benefits, that it’s diabetic friendly, low carb, high fiber, and designated a super food, Simon said.

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