Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, headquartered in Columbia, SC, told The Produce News that sweet potato acreage in the United States appears to be down a little this year, but not by much.
"The official 2012 sweet potato crop projection, which is issued by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, is not released until January 2013," said Mr. Walker. "But growers know how much they put in the ground, and they have a keen idea of how the crop is going to come out. They check in, and based on those reports we have a prettygood idea of how the country will fare. Based on what I'm hearing, most are saying that they have a good crop. Louisiana and Mississippi are coming out pretty good, and fortunately were affected only slightly by Hurricane Isaac in late August."
The 2011 official crop report, issued last January, shows that 2.7 billion pounds of fresh sweet potatoes were produced. Mr. Walker said that the figure was a substantial increase in production over 2010, and it may be at least partially responsible for the weakened prices in recent periods.
"The June 29, 2012 release by NASS shows that in 2011, there were 133,600 acres of sweet potatoes planted," said Mr. Walker. "In 2012, NASS estimated that there were 131,400 acres planted. Therefore, comparing 2012 plantings to 2011 plantings, we have a decrease of 1.6 percent in 2012."
Sweet potato exports have been on the rise every year for the past 20 years, but Mr. Walker said they've really taken off in the past 10 years.
"Last year's exports were the highest they have ever been," he said. "The U.S. shipped 104,206 metric tons to foreign countries last year. The largest percentages go to Canada, the U.K. and the Netherlands."
Mr. Walker said that there are always disease or insect pressures, but he has not heard anything out of the ordinary this year.
"Growers get a great deal of support from the extension services agencies, and when they detect a problem, those people are on top of it right away," he explained. "Sweet potato producers know their plants well, and they know when they have even the slightest issue. They are real pros at what they do."
Asked if he felt there is a possibility that some sweet potato growers in the country might convert at least a portion of their fields to other commodity crops, such as corn and soy, due primarily to the shortage of these crops and the higher prices, Mr. Walker said, "If growing sweet potatoes becomes unprofitable, you'll see less grown. If there is extra land, and the growers see a potential profit in planting one of these other crops, he is of course going to do it. Despite the growing demand, prices have been weak. The cost of production is higher than ever, and growers have to make a profit in order to stay in business."
He added that the growing demand for sweet potatoes suggests that production is going to remain strong in the future.
The U.S. Sweet Potato Council is the advocate for the economic wellbeing of the nation's sweet potato growers. The organization is funded by dues paid by state organizations, associate membership dues and individual sponsorships.
The council supports the industry by implementing reasonably priced promotion activities. It also engages in government and grower issues on behalf of the country's sweet potato producers.