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Benny Graves, executive director of the Vardaman, MS-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, told The Produce News that growers in the state started harvesting in August and were between 25 and 30 percent into the crop in mid-September.

“We have some good-looking potatoes coming out,” said Mr. Graves. “There are a couple of isolated spots that got a little too much moisture, but they are minimal, and overall we have some of the best shapes and qualities that I’ve seen in a while.”

Sweet-potato-pics-sept-2012Just-harvested sweet potatoes in a Mississippi field. (Photos courtesy of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council)Growers in Mississippi are a little behind in their harvesting due to Hurricane Isaac, but by mid-September they were ramping back up. Mr. Graves said that harvesting in the state should be wrapped up by the second week in November. He expects the state to have between 22,000 and 22,500 acres of sweet potatoes this year, about 5,000 acres less than last year’s crop.

He said that the state has had a few roller-coaster years of late.

“2009 was a disaster year for us because of hurricanes,” he said. “We lost four growers that year. But we’ve overcome that, and this year three new growers joined our list of sweet potato producers, so we’re about even with where we were before 2009.

“And we’ve gotten into some new varieties, which we’re very excited about,” Mr. Graves continued. “The Evangeline continues to do well and it now represents about 25 percent of our crop. The Beauregard is still the No. 1. The Orleans, which was developed at Louisiana State University, is up and coming.”

Mr. Graves added that exports to Europe are increasing, but that does not have a huge effect on Mississippi growers. He explained that transportation costs to foreign countries, including Canada, give growers on the East Coast an advantage in serving those markets. He added that this scenario allows states like Mississippi to fill in the domestic demand for sweet potatoes.

“Overall, the demand for fresh is still strong and growing, but we wish we had a better price point,” he said. “At today’s prices, sweet potatoes are an outstanding value to consumers.”

Processing also continues to grow, and the Con Agra sweet potato processing facility in Delhi, LA, which opened in 2010, has been great for keeping the demand for off-grade sweet potatoes strong.

“Both fresh and processing are strong markets,” said Mr. Graves. “But neither offer real high profit margins. We’re keeping an eye on how things could change in the coming year. There are very strong prices on corn, soybeans and other commodities because of the shortages caused by the drought. It may impact the number of sweet potatoes that are planted next year because growers may decide to put some of their acreage into those crops.”

But, he noted, Mississippi growers are committed to sweet potatoes and are fully equipped to produce, store and ship their crops. But if they see a financial advantage, some may plant other commodities in a portion of their acreage.

“Consumption continues to be positive on both processed and fresh sweet potatoes,” said Mr. Graves. “We’re seeing more demand for shrink-wrapped, overwrapped and bagged product, and that’s a sign that consumers want them in their homes as a staple product.

“This is also about people just wanting to eat healthy,” he continued. “The push for more vegetables on the plate and nutritional factors all play into the same push. You can’t pick up a food magazine or [see a] cooking show on television without coming across sweet potatoes in short time.”

He added that the national sweet potato industry has much more storage capacity and many more packers who operate year round today, and so availability is almost seamless from year to year.

“Sweet potatoes are such a shelf-stable product compared to other perishable items,” Mr. Graves added. “We’re a basic comfort food that will satisfy your hunger.”

The council is now using a promotional item at the Mississippi visitor centers, “which is giving us a nice boost,” he added. “We’re upbeat and looking forward to a solid year.”