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As peak season approaches, sweet potato supplies in jeopardy

by Christina DiMartino | November 05, 2009
Sweet potato volume in some key Southern production areas is off by as much as 75 percent as a peak demand period approaches.

Benny Graves, executive secretary and treasurer of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council in Mississippi State, MS, said that the state's sweet potato crop is "very, very" short.

Overall, we have a 70-75 percent loss, said Mr. Graves. We wont have enough to cover Thanksgiving, and well likely be out of supplies completely before the end of the year.

Heavy rains swept through Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana and Tennessee just as harvesting started this season. The rains began Sept. 10 in Mississippi before the front moved across surrounding states and continued throughout most of September and into October.

According to the Mississippi Agricultural Statistics Services weekly weather crop report, over the two-month time period, Mississippi had only 16 days without rain. Taking into consideration the time required for the soil to dry between rains, the number of days producers could harvest fell far below the minimal threshold. As a result, crop losses will show up as increased abandonment, reduced yields on acres that are ultimately harvested and reduced crop quality resulting in substantial price discounts to producers.

Growers are now salvaging their fields, said Mr. Graves. They went into the fields as soon as the rains let up and harvested the high spots. Now theyre trying to salvage what they can from the lower-lying areas. Its not a highly efficient method  theyre basically picking with buckets. And they dont know if theyre digging wet potatoes or not. But they try their best to salvage what they can in this situation.

Mr. Graves added that things are happening that normally do not this time of year, adding that he said he saw one 300-acre crop pulled out of the ground and shipped directly to processing. Its unusual to see an entire crop go right to processing, he said.

Kim Matthews, co-owner with her husband, Terris, of Matthews Ridgeview Farms in Wynne, AR, said that harvesting was still touch-and-go as of Nov. 3.

Were back in the fields today, she said. As of now, we have about 55 percent of our crop out, and we just dont know how much more we can get out because of the weather. Arkansas is normally on the same schedule as Mississippi. They got a lot more rain than we did, but we were also set back during the past couple of months. Well keep at it until we cant go any longer, and as of today we feel we have another seven or eight days left to try.

Ms. Matthews said that the quality of the product still in the fields is also unknown.

If we see bad product, we wont harvest it, she added.

Rene Simon, executive director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission in Baton Rouge, LA, said that growers in the state were at 40-45 percent harvested on Nov. 3, but they are typically just about wrapped up by that time in a normal year. Signs are clear that there will be substantial losses when growers are finished.

The northern part of Louisiana took a hard hit from the rains and resulting flooding, said Mr. Simon. The southern part of the state was also hit, but not as badly. People are still digging, and although its not a total washout, we do expect some pretty heavy losses this year.

The weather forecast in early November was for more rain, which Mr. Simon said could result in the loss of the remaining crop in the fields.

Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, headquartered in Columbia, SC, said that taking a hit two years in a row could be very bad news for some producers in Louisiana.

Storms in 2008 caused big losses in Louisiana, said Mr. Walker. It produced 110 million pounds in 2008 compared to its normal 300 million pounds.

In 2007, those two states represented 36 percent of the U.S. sweet potato production, he continued. Major losses in those states will inevitably affect pricing in the coming year.

Mr. Graves said that Mississippi growers will source from North Carolina and other areas to fill customer orders, or pass customers on to other areas that do have supplies.

Federal aid offers some hope for farmers to recoup a portion of their losses, but Mr. Graves said it is minimal, and getting the money isnt timely enough when the help is desperately needed now.

A new farm bill that covers crop years 2008 through 2011 is being implemented this year, but Mr. Graves said that it, too, would be only minimal financial aid to companies with enormous losses. Bank loans continue to be tight due to the economy, and Mr. Graves said that this years shortage will contribute to higher seed costs next year when growers are planting their new crops.

We are in contact with all our politicians at the federal level regarding federal disaster assistance, he added. But its up to Congress as to whether we get it or not. An assessment is going on now to determine the number of states affected. That will determine if disaster status will be established and if Congress will vote on assistance.

The speed with which the money can be obtained could also affect the future of some sweet potato producers who suffered huge losses this year. Mr. Graves said that it could be a couple of years before funding, if granted, reaches growers.

Some growers can tolerate a year like this financially, and others have to have loans, said Mr. Graves. We will be working with the Farm Service Agency in an effort to get low-interest loans for growers who need them.

Situations like this one are part of being in agriculture, he continued. Its not a good situation, but its what we sometimes have to deal with.