Bland Farms expects its sweet potato harvest to be similar to last year's. ( Courtesy Bland Farms )

Southern sweet potato acreage is expected to drop again this year, leaving grower-shippers hopeful that fewer acres will result in lower volume and an uptick in prices.

U.S. sweet potato acreage in 2017 was down 2.45% compared to 2016, said Kay Rentzel, executive director of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, Dillsburg, Pa. But yield per acre was up 16%.

“Thus the actual supply was greater than the previous year,” she said.

No official estimate has been made for acreage or volume for 2018, but growers expect acreage and volume to drop.

Another drop in the price of sweet potatoes could negatively impact growers this season, said Tami Long, director of marketing and business development for Nash Produce LLC, Nashville, N.C.

“With the prices being as low as they are right now, farmers are struggling,” she said in mid-August.

She expected sweet potato acreage to go down this season.

“Farmers couldn’t make money, so they planted other crops,” she said.

She was hopeful that with a drop in acreage and continued strong demand, markets will improve.

She said value-oriented retailers selling sweet potatoes at a discounted price as a loss leader only adds to a bad situation for growers.

F.o.b. prices for 40-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes from Eastern North Carolina were $12-15 on Aug. 13, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. A year earlier, they were $13-16.

There is some concern that low prices might affect sweet potato exports.

Although the Benson, N.C.-based American Sweet Potato Marketing Institute says sweet potato exports are up, growers say exports can eat into their profits when prices drop.

“It is more expensive packing in the 6-kilogram carton that is typically exported than the 40-pound carton that is sold domestically,” said Charlotte Vick, partner in Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C.

“The labor cost is more expensive, the transportation is more expensive, and the risk factor is higher due to the transit time to get sweet potatoes from the U.S. to Europe,” she said.

Prices must return to a profitable level for packers and shippers to want to continue to sell on the export market, she said.

Some growers likely will reduce their export volume if exports don’t prove profitable, she added.

At J Roland Wood Produce Co., Benson, owner Roland Wood said he expected to have a 10% reduction in yields this year as a result of a decrease in acreage after last year.

“Along with the decreased acreage, we’ve had four to five weeks of dry weather,” he said.

“This weather has set us back with a 20% cut in yield rate since last year, totaling a 30% reduction in yield rate from 2017,” he said.

The real challenge for sweet potato suppliers and retailers could come later in the season as the weather cools and the holidays approach, said Eric Beck, marketing director for Idaho Falls, Idaho-based Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, which has a branch in Raleigh, N.C.

He encouraged retailers to allow plenty of lead time when placing their orders.

Grower-shippers need time “to figure out the supply chain needs of getting packed product from our doors to the customers’ receiving area to counter industrywide transportation problems,” he said.

Ham Produce Co. Inc., Snow Hill, N.C., will start harvesting in late August or early September, said Will Kornegay, senior vice president of sales and business development.

He was reluctant to name a specific date because of weather uncertainties.

“There’s been quite a bit of precipitation in the last several weeks,” he said Aug. 7.

But he added that the crop needed the rain.

“Quality in the fields looks great right now,” he said.

In Vardaman, Miss., SMP Southeast/Edmonson Farms expected to start harvesting on schedule in mid- to late August, said Trey Boyette, partner and sales manager.

“Very good quality is showing up in the fields right now,” he said in early August, but volume won’t equal last year, which he described as exceptional.

Supplies should be adequate for the company this year, he said.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a bin buster.”

In early August, Troy Bland, chief operating officer for Bland Farms, Glennville, Ga., was hoping things would dry out as harvest time approached after some wet weather.

“We start to get a little anxious the closer we get to harvest,” he said. “It can be a little trying if we have a wet harvest time.”

He expected the company’s volume to be similar to last year.

Kim Kornegay-LeQuire, co-owner of Kornegay Family Farms & Produce, Princeton, N.C., believes the crop may be late this year because the region was dry for most of June.

“Most of the sweet potatoes in the state were affected by kind of a moderate drought,” she said.

Rain in late July and early August should help, she said, but she expected lower yields.