Soggy season could crimp sweet potato supply

Published 11:35 pm Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Savor that holiday sweet potato pie and those marshmallow yams while you can.

Agricultural experts and industry officials expect enough sweet potatoes for Thanksgiving and Christmas, traditionally a high-demand period. But by Easter, another peak period, sweet potatoes could be in limited supply in some parts of the country due to crop losses in the major growing states of Louisiana and Mississippi.

Whether that leads to higher prices at the grocery store depends in part on demand and how far the North Carolina and California crops stretch. North Carolina, the nation’s leading producer, had what officials there consider a good — but not great — crop, and the full extent of losses due to heavy late-season rains in the Gulf South is not yet known.

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North Carolina harvested 45 percent of U.S. sweet potato acreage last year, followed by Louisiana and Mississippi with about 30 percent altogether. California accounted for 15 percent, according to statistics provided by the North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission.

In the Gulf South, some farmers have been able to salvage potatoes during the recent break in rains, while others have found rotten spuds in still-muddy fields. Ken Thornhill, who wasn’t hit as hard as other growers and harvested most of his northeast Louisiana crop, worries how his potatoes will hold up in storage, awaiting shipment and sale.

“We know we have some potatoes that are going to break down,” he said. “It’s just a question of how much.”

Preliminary estimates from agricultural economists at Louisiana State and Mississippi State universities put potential revenue losses for sweet potato farmers in those states at more than $55 million.

Another unknown: seed for next year’s crop. Farmers get seed during harvest. Bill Burdine, an area agronomist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service, expects that many of his state’s growers will need to buy seed from out of state.

This is the second year sweet potato farmers in the region have been hit with losses. Hurricanes Gustav and Ike were to blame in 2008.

Thornhill, who lost much of his crop to Gustav, considers himself among the lucky ones this year. He plans to give thanks Thursday with a meal that includes — you guessed it — sweet potatoes.

“Oooh, you better believe it,” he said. “We love ’em.”

Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said the industry will rebound from a year in which he expects Mississippi’s supplies will be “the shortest in recent times.”

“We will have sweet potatoes as long as they last,” he said, adding, “It will be an interesting year.”