California sweet potato growers expect a big crop and outstanding quality this season, with the heart of the deal expected to begin in mid-September.

The week of Aug. 24, AV Thomas Produce, Livingston, Calif., was still digging sweet potatoes for direct shipments to the fresh market, said Jeremy Fookes, salesman. The first or second week of September, the company, which grows or markets about half of the sweet potatoes grown in California, was expected to start digging for storage.

The company started digging in the first half of July, one or two weeks earlier than usual, Fookes said. That, combined with the economy and less promotional support from some retailers, kept demand below levels California sweet potatoes have enjoyed in past years, he said.

“So far it’s been decent, but not as exciting as in years past,” Fookes said. “And I don’t know if there are other exciting items out there or what, but the ads have been a little later than normal.”

But Scott Stoddard, farm adviser for the Merced County office of the University of California Cooperative Extension Service, had a different take on late-August demand.

“Out here (in California) we’ve been having very good demand,” Stoddard said. “One grower I talked to who usually has just one line running this time of year is going like gangbusters, packing five days a week.”

Growing demand for California sweet potatoes has pushed acreage up each of the past several years, Stoddard said, with acreage making a jump from 14,500 acres last year to a U.S. Department of Agriculture-forecasted 17,500 acres this year. If that estimate proves true, it would be a record crop in the Golden State, he said.

Dodie Gauger, a saleswoman for Classic Yam Inc., Livingston, Calif., said demand was steady in late August, but predicted it would pick up significantly after Labor Day. She predicted more spuds would be packed in bags, trays and other packages to move the bigger California crop this year.

“From what I’ve heard, there are a lot more programs coming up,” she said.

On Aug. 25, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reported a price of $25 for 40-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 orange-variety sweet potatoes from California, down from $30 last year at the same time.

Production would begin peaking in mid-September this year, Stoddard predicted. Full harvest for Classic Yam would begin about Sept. 14, Gauger said.

Fookes reported “excellent” quality and above-average yields on potatoes harvested in August, with no wind or pest damage.

“There have been fewer rejections for skinning than we’ve ever had,” he said.

Given that excellent quality and ample volumes, Fookes expected demand and promotions to pick up once summer turned to fall.

AV Thomas has substantially increased its production of covingtons this year, Fookes said. The company now grows more covingtons than beauregards, he said. By late August AV Thomas also was shipping white-flesh, red-flesh and oriental sweet potato varieties in volume, Fookes said.