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Sweet potatoes plentiful but not a bumper crop

By
Tim Linden

North Carolina, which is the nation’s leading supplier of sweet potatoes, appears to be producing lower yields per acre this season, but an overall increase in acreage should deliver sufficient supplies to meet regular demand.

Digging began in mid-August with only about 10 percent of the volume harvested in the first month, according to Jose (Pepe) Calderon, sales manager for Farm Pak Products, in Spring Hope, NC. He told The Produce News on Sept. 16 that the crop appears to be maturing slower than usual but added that harvesting was beginning to ramp up and most companies would be in full production within a week. Though Calderon did note that Hurricane Sally was battering the Gulf Coast as he was being interviewed, and it could dump heavy rain in North Carolina further slowing the harvest. You can’t dig potatoes in drenched fields.

Paradoxically, Calderon blamed nearly perfect consumer weather over the past few months for the lower sweet potato yields. “Sweet potatoes need a little stress in their lives to produce a big crop,” he quipped. “They need some heat and dry weather for those roots to grow and spread out.”

Instead, he said North Carolina has had several good rainstorms and moderate temperatures through the summer giving those plants a very comfortable life.

Charlotte D. Vick of Vick Family Farms, in Wilson, NC, said weather is also the culprit for delaying the crop, and said there could be more rainy weather on the horizon. “Weather challenges this spring and summer seem to have had an impact and have delayed harvest for many growers and therefore it could be a smaller crop for 2020,” she said on Sept. 16. “There is still a lot of days left in this harvest season but it is also hurricane season so we remain skeptical of predicting the volume this crop will produce until we get closer to finishing our harvest. I would expect a much later harvest finish than prior years.”

The sweet potato harvest typically begins in mid-August and concludes in early November. After sweet potatoes are harvested, they need to cure in storage for several weeks before they are sold and can be held for up to a year.  Both Vick and Calderon reported that there was a perfect transition between the end of the 2019 storage crop and this year’s new crop of potatoes.  By mid-September both companies, as well as other grower-shippers, were featuring the 2020 potatoes in their cartons and various packs.

Vick said that despite the weather challenges there will be plenty of sweet potatoes to fill up those shopping carts for the next year. “Sweet Potatoes are always promoted during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday as well as Easter,” she said. “That is pretty much a traditional trend that seems hard to break.”

Calderon said sweet potato shippers have noted an increase in demand throughout the pandemic. He said demand was very good in mid-September with 40-pound cartons of top product returning $16 to $19 f.o.b.

Vick Family Farms has seen an increase in demand for more convenience packaging, especially during the past few months with the big increase in on-line shopping.

Further west, Autumn Campbell of Matthews Ridgeview Farms, in Wynne, AR, also commented on the very strong sweet potato sales that have occurred this year. She said there was a spike in sales as panic buying took hold in March and April. But even since then, she said demand has been very good. The company has also had a very smooth transition between the 2019 and 2020 crop with no gap. She said the 2020 Arkansas sweet potato crop “definitely looks better than last year. We’ve had no major issues.”

On Sept. 14, she said the f.o.b. price for Arkansas sweet potatoes was holding steady at $21 per carton.

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