Persistent rain in parts of the South has hampered sweet potato harvesting in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Arkansas, with growers in those states as of Oct. 9 seeing 20-30 percent of their harvest complete compared to 50-70 percent by this time in a normal year.
Rene Simon, executive director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission in Baton Rouge, told The Produce News Oct. 12, "It's rainy, nasty here. The forecast is for more rain through Thursday, and then we expect to see clear skies. The ground has to dry out for a few days following this level of moisture, so I expect to see growers itching to get into their fields by next Monday or Tuesday. They've been trying to harvest since Labor Day."
Mr. Simon said that northern Louisiana growers are lagging behind even more than those in other parts of the state because of the low-lying fields there. He expected that at least some portion of the crop is beyond harvesting possibility.
The potential bad news follows a previous devastating year in Louisiana. Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council in Columbia, SC, said, "Louisiana's five-year average from 2003 to 2007 was 2.5 million hundredweight. Last year, due to serious weather problems, it reported 1.1 million hundredweight. Despite the weather problems this year, they should end up reporting a higher volume than last year."
Mr. Walker added that it is impossible to offer projections until either the crops are in or it is too late to get them in.
Mr. Walker said that sweet potatoes get stressed from too much water, which prevents proper respiration in the plants. Leaving them in the field for longer than normal also means they continue to grow. That can result in an excess of jumbo sizes, and the fresh market prefers smaller sizes.
Kim Matthews, co-owner of Matthews Ridgeview Farms in Wynne, AR, said that a year ago, on Oct. 9, 2008, the company had about 12 days of harvesting left to complete its harvest.
"This year we are four weeks from finishing due to rain," she said. "Until the fields dry out, we can't get into them. What we have harvested is great quality, so our expectations are to end up with a nice crop."
Matthews Ridgeview Farms was scheduled to participate in Yam-Jam 2009, a project where volunteers glean the company's fields, and the sweet potatoes go to food-relief agencies. The Yam-Jam, originally scheduled for Sept. 29, was cancelled due to rain and rescheduled for the following week. But it was cancelled again as the rains continued. Ms. Matthews added that there would not be a Yam-Jam this year.
Benny Graves, executive secretary and treasurer of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, said that sweet potato growers in Mississippi were facing a challenging harvest.
"An exceptional warm and wet tropical air mass hung over the state for the last two weeks of September and the first week of October, a period when harvesting is normally in full force," he said. "There will be harvest delays, but our growers are great at sorting repeatedly, starting when they are harvested. Product that is sold will be good quality. We won't know the total crop volume until around Thanksgiving, but we do not expect it to be in the normal realm."
Charlie Friedman, president of Friedman & Broussard Produce Inc. in Forest, LA, said that despite the problems associated with wet weather this year, he expects the company's supplies to be in decent shape.
"We will likely be a little late," said Mr. Friedman. "But what we have in the shed is outstanding quality. If the weather cooperates, we'll bring the crop in quickly."
It is impossible to predict the outcome of the overall sweet potato volumes until about Nov. 10, when sweet potato harvesting will come to an end, regardless of weather conditions.
Roy Hansen, sales manager of Dawson Farms LLC in Delhi, LA, said Oct. 8 that the company typically has about 50 percent of its crop harvested by this point in the season.
"But we are at only 20 percent due to wet weather," he said. "The current weather forecast indicates we'll have more rain over the next few days. However, the long-term forecast calls for drier weather following this wet spell.
"We have 12 four-row diggers, so we can harvest between 2,000 and 3,000 bins a day," continued Mr. Hansen. "If we get a few weeks of sunshine, we'll get the crop out of the ground in good shape. But it is just too early, and the weather is too unpredictable, to project an accurate outcome. The sweet potatoes are in good shape -- we just need to get them out of the fields."
A shortage of sweet potatoes on a national scale would lead to a couple of scenarios. One is that prices would be higher during the coming year. In times of economic pressure, high prices on sweet potatoes, which are typically considered a value to consumers, could mean that people back off the product somewhat.
"Harvest time is when volumes are highest during a year, and consequently prices are lowest," said Mr. Walker. "This year, prices are holding on the sweet potatoes that are now shipping. That indicates to me that they will continue to hold into January, or there could be an upward price trend."
A nationwide shortage could also mean that supplies will run short next summer, which could also put added pressure on pricing.
The sweet potato industry has worked diligently over the past decade to promote sweet potatoes as a highly nutritious, delicious and good-value product, and the effort has paid off. Sweet potatoes are no longer considered a holiday-only vegetable.
Foodservice operators are helping to push demand by offering them on menus year round. Retailers are listening to suppliers, which suggest that sweet potatoes should be a category and not just an SKU by offering a wide range of varieties, sizes and packages.
(For more on sweet potatoes, see the Oct. 19, 2009, issue of The Produce News.