(July 23) Supplies of cured sweet potatoes — sweeter than their green counterparts, which are shipped shortly after harvest — will remain scarce even as the new potato season begins in August, thanks to delayed harvests and rapidly decreasing storage of cured product.

“Basically, there’s nothing left in Louisiana to speak of,” said Roy Hansen, sales manager of Dawson Farms LLC, in Delhi, La. “Nobody can take on new business, not customers that are looking for new supplies. It’s just not out there.”

Larger shippers are satisfying their established customers, he said, but supplies of cured potatoes will be gone early in August.

The industry tries to limit the number of green potatoes shipped to retailers because the starches haven’t turned to sugar and they’re not recommended for baking, said Bryce Malone, executive director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission, Baton Rouge.

Controlling the stored potato’s environment with heat and humidity can speed it up, but the natural curing process can take up to two months, Hansen said.

“There’s definitely going to be a green deal this year, which is what we’re trying to get away from in the industry,” he said. “They’ll take the greens just to have a supply.”

On July 22, the Agricultural Marketing Service reported 40-pound cartons of cured U.S. No. 1 mediums from Louisiana selling for $19-20, and for $18-19 from eastern North Carolina. At the same time last year, the cured mediums were bringing $12-12.50 from Louisiana and $10-11 from North Carolina.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 10,000 40-pound cartons of Louisiana sweet potatoes were shipped the week of July 13-19. A year ago, that number was four times higher. North Carolina shipments had also tapered off, with 92,000 cartons shipped during that week this year, compared to 84,000 last year.

Harvest in Alabama, which has started as early as July 4 in some years, is usually going by mid-July. As of July 22, however, Peturis Family Farm, Loxley, Ala., had yet to start harvest because of consistent rains throughout June and July.

“We have a good chance of rain today, and then a cold front and then another chance of rain tomorrow,” said Joe Peturis, partner in the farm, on July 22. “It’s been unusual. We usually have a dry June and get wet in July, but we had over 20 inches of rain in June and close to 15 inches in July. We really aren’t losing the crop, but it’s slowed us down.”

Peturis said some growers are turning the potatoes with a plow and using costly labor to harvest the potatoes by hand.

Malone said the Louisiana sweet potato crop for the fresh market dropped by a quarter to a third in 2002-03, mainly due to tropical storms and hurricanes that damaged fields. This year’s plantings were also delayed by rain.

“We may have some limited harvest until the first of August, because a lot of potatoes were planted late,” he said. “I would expect we’ll have some available the first part of August, but probably not a large supply. We’re pretty much out of the old crop of potatoes.”

In North Carolina, last year’s crop was short because of a hot, dry summer that killed transplants in the field. That left gaps in the rows gave potatoes more room to grow, said George Wooten, owner of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C.

“We had a high No. 1 market, because there were more jumbos, and the jumbo market was initially down,” Wooten said. “It’s probably twice as high as it was in January.”

Wooten said supplies were as tight as he’s seen in years, and rains have damaged up to 20% of the new crop. How that will affect Thanksgiving shipments, he said, won’t be evident until September.

Some growers, weary of short supplies from last season, planted more this year; Wayne E. Bailey Produce jumped from 1,300 acres to 2,400 acres this season.

“I’m thinking North Carolina will start around Aug. 15,” said Wooten, who predicts supplies will be short through the third week of August.

Despite the anticipated flood of green potatoes, the industry doesn’t expect retailers to balk when accepting the uncured product.

“The cured potatoes have dominated the fresh market, but this year (retailers) should be able to move out the fresh potatoes really good,” Wooten said.