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Sweet potato shortage should drive prices higher, says Tater Man

On Sept. 19, Jason Bell, account manager for Tater Man, headquartered in Sydney, FL, told The Produce News that the company’s 2013 sweet potato crop was about half way harvested.

“Our yields are down by between 20-30 percent,” said Bell. “Jumbo sizes are taking the biggest hit, and are therefore getting the biggest tick on pricing because demand is outweighing supply. This is where we’re seeing the most notable difference currently.”

photo1Jason Bell, account manager for Tater Man.Spring rains are being blamed for the smaller crop in most eastern sweet potato-growing regions this year. Bell said excess moisture slows the process of the roots forming and prevents the sweet potatoes beginning to size up in a timely manner.

“If a crop is slow at the front end, and even if you get ideal conditions at harvest time, you’re not going to have the sizes you want or the yields,” he added. “Prices are up in relation to the demand and supply.”

Growers in other eastern areas of the country are also reporting shorter crops, and concurring with Bell that it’s going to be a tight situation as next spring approaches.

“We’re seeing a slight uptick in prices on the [U.S.] No.1 sizes,” said Bell. “This is the most highly demanded size at the retail level. The foodservice industry gets a bit of all sizes, but foodservice represents only a small percentage of my business.”

He noted that on Tater Man’s farms, he believes that sweet potatoes that are normally harvested in 90-100 days are taking 110-120 days to mature due to the late and slow start.

“Even then they are not as large as we would ideally want, but time-wise you just reach that point that you have to get started,” he said. “We anticipate our harvest wrapping up in October.”

Bell said that the coming year’s shortage is going to be most strongly felt by around next Easter. That’s when supplies will dip, but with holiday and summer grilling demand, which have become popular uses for the item, will keep the demand high. There is a good chance that the shortage will show in a higher crunch that will result in some higher prices around that time.

“We are already feeling a crunch on jumbo sizes,” noted Bell. “Basically that size is just not going to be around from the start.”

With production costs higher than ever, producers like Tater Man are hoping that prices will hold at a higher level even if volumes and quality in the 2014 crop are strong.

“We need these higher prices to hold into the future,” he said. “The cost of producing a crop is not going to drop, and sweet potatoes are long overdue for a fair increase.”

He pointed out that sweet potatoes are not at all like seasonal field crops, such as tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and others. These items start in the Deep South and move north with season changes. Production then moves back toward the south as fall and winter approaches. With this movement happening on both the East and West Coasts of the country, and imports from offshore where there are gaps, field commodity items are available year-round to satisfy the North American demand.

“With sweet potatoes, you get one shot,” said Bell. “What happens with the country’s crop when it’s harvested in the fall affects the market for the next eight to 10 months.”

Tater Man markets sweet potatoes that are produced by the Penry family in Daphne, AL, and the Coggins family in Florida and Georgia. The company ships the Hernandez, Evangeline, Covington and Murasaki sweet potato varieties. The Murasaki is the purple-skin sweet potato, which is continually growing in demand. Bell said that to his knowledge, the company is the only one that ships cured Murasaki sweet potatoes.

“Despite the shorter crop this season, Tater Man is super excited about the rest of this season and for our company’s prospects for 2014,” said Bell. “We’ll be able to service our customers with high-quality sweet potatoes.”