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Sweet potato volume down, prices holding

National sweet potato marketing conditions "are better than what it was a year ago," said Charlie Walker, executive secretary of the Columbia, SC-based U.S. Sweet Potato Council Inc. "The growers feel they ought to get more out of the market. Production is down and there is a concern there are not stronger prices."

National sweet potato production is down 6.4 percent from the 2012 crop, and prices on Jan. 23 were a dollar or two per carton above the same level of a year earlier, according to Walker.

Forty-pound cartons in North Carolina were priced in the $17-18 range. Louisiana growers were receiving $17.50 per carton and in Mississippi per carton prices were $17-$18.50. U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes in California were $18-$20 per carton.

"Sweet potato suppliers are tighter this year than last,” said Benny Graves, who heads the Vardaman, MS-based Mississippi Sweet Potato Council. “The January market is stronger than normal. The 2013 market from Thanksgiving to Christmas was excellent because the market was much tighter than last year."

Graves said this year's "pack-out is excellent and the quality is good. That is making a lot of customers happy and gives more money for the farmers and packers."

The Orleans, a new orange-flesh sweet potato variety in Mississippi, is a small-volume production, “but it is increasingly popular because of a great shape and good eating quality,” Graves said. The Beauregard remains the predominant Mississippi sweet potato variety.

Graves expects a larger percentage of jumbo-sized sweet potatoes will be shipped from Mississippi in the spring and summer as the packer-shippers reach the tubers that were put into storage at the end of the 2013 harvest season.

Mississippi's acreage may bounce up somewhat this spring because of higher prices this season. But an intervening factor may be grain prices, which might affect sweet potato acreage one way or another.

"We are pretty optimistic" about the future of sweet potato marketing, Graves said. "There are good (consumption) trends. There is a lot of positive buzz and we are excited about it."