North Florida potato growers surveyed damage May 26 and tried to salvage harvestable product after torrential rains flooded their fields.


A week of heavy rains that sent as much as 27 inches of rain in late May to the growing region caused serious damage to potato fields.


Mike Hevener, president of the South Florida Potato Growers Exchange, Orlando, said the fresh deal could sustain losses of up to 70%.


“The rain has devastated everybody up here,” he said. “Some farmers will lose everything. No one was unscathed by the damage that was done and no one has ever seen it like this before. But it hasn’t knocked everyone out completely. We are still digging.”


Hevener said most of the Bunnell, Fla.-area growers, on the south end of the deal, had to walk away from their farms because of the saturation.


The exchange sells for growers that grow on 6,000 acres. About half of the north Florida potato deal’s 18,000 acres normally ships fresh.


Grower-shippers report new potato prices increasing, but only slightly.


Keith Honeycutt, vice president of marketing and sales for Boone, N.C.-based Hollar & Greene Produce Co. Inc., which has operations in Bunnell, said 50-pound sacks of round whites size A rose from $12 on May 19 to $15 May 26.


Because of other harvests, Honeycutt said prices for reds remain unchanged. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported 50-pound sacks of round red size A sold for $10.


“We can’t get too carried away with it or we’ll run everyone to the western states, which we don’t need to do,” Honeycutt said May 26. “We need to keep them here to move what we have.”


Honeycutt said the Bunnell area, which received more than 27 inches of rain in five days, sustained the most damage. He said Hollar & Greene had harvested only a couple of loads before the torrential rains that began May 17 prevented digging.


Growers in the Hasting, Fla., and Palatka, Fla. areas didn’t receive as much water and were slowly harvesting and filling orders, Honeycutt said.


North Florida growers normally begin digging in early to mid-May and finish in mid-June.


Because of weather disrupting plantings, those that can salvage product expect to pick until early July.


David Dinkins, a University of Florida St. Johns County extension director in St. Augustine, Fla., said the week of rains hit during what would have been the growers’ peak week of diggings.


“Damage is variable, but a lot of farmers hadn’t started digging yet,” he said. “Overall, we have at least 70% of the acreage that hasn’t been harvested. The jury is still out on whether those potatoes would be marketable. But, with the rainfall we’ve received, those potatoes are sitting in water for at least 24 hours, sometimes longer. It’s a dire situation.”


Hot temperatures remain a real danger in that once the sun comes out and heats up the fields, growers could see rot forming in the potatoes, Dinkins said.


According to media reports, the flooding could have caused up to $50 million in damages to the potato crop.


Federal disaster officials and U.S. Rep. John Mica (R-Winter Park, Fla.) toured the region and pledged to seek federal aid for growers.


After Florida growers finish diggings, North Carolina potatoes typically begin harvesting in late June.