(July 23) A lack of rain could limit yields for the upcoming North Carolina sweet potato crop, shippers say.

In light of oversupply from last year’s crop, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for grower-shippers, said Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Burch Farms, Faison, N.C.

“We need a short crop, to be honest with you,” he said, adding that a 10% reduction could strengthen the market.

Meanwhile, in Louisiana, Johnny Roy, manager of Earl Roy Sweet Potato Co., Hessmer, reported higher stocks of old crop on hand for the industry than the same time last year.

Actually, it seemed that all of the major sweet producing states — California, Mississippi, North Carolina and Louisiana — had higher inventories on hand as they prepared to start new crops, thanks in part to increased use of controlled-atmosphere storage, said Bryce Malone, executive director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Association, Baton Rouge.

On July 22, Roy reported f.o.b.s for 40-pound boxes of sweet potatoes at around $12, pretty average for that time of year.

“I don’t see any rise in it, for sure,” he said.

Markets ahead will depend on the transition to new crops, which should begin harvest in early August for Garber Farms, Iota, La., partner Matt Garber said.

In late July, Garber Farms’ crop was on track for above-average yields, but Louisiana growers still faced the chance of storms or hurricanes.

“Too much rain, that’s your only worry at this point,” Garber said.

North Carolina was dry, but that’s normal in July, Burch said.

“We pray we don’t get a hurricane,” he said. “That’s almost normal.”

George Wooten III, farm manager for Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., said the state’s lack of rain could delay the company’s harvest from its normal timing in mid-August to probably early September. Dry conditions also could increase the risk that potatoes get skinned during digging, he said.

Harvest should continue until Oct. 25, depending on the weather.

Burch said July and August is when his company’s sweet potatoes get their sizing, which he expects to be normal for this season. Overall yields could decrease, though, he said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has estimated North Carolina’s 2002 harvested acreage at 37,000, compared to 36,000 acres last year and 32,000 in 1998.

The USDA estimated Louisiana at 20,000 acres, compared to 22,000 last year. Burch said he heard Mississippi’s crop could be down 10% this season.

Increased use of CA storage has enabled the industry to offer kiln-dried sweet potatoes year-round. The sweeter taste of the cured product appeals more to consumers than green sweet potatoes, but the seamless availability creates an almost stable market year-round, Burch said.

In years past, short supplies in July and August could send f.o.b.s up to $18, he said. Now the market is more apt to stay in the $9-11 range year-round, he said.

Despite the flattening of the market, Garber said offering kiln-dried product year-round is the best thing for buyers and consumers. Garber Farms has tripled its CA capacity from three years ago, he said.

Wooten said CA storage requires more investment in the product. Still, he noted that prices used to go down when green sweet potatoes were put on the market.

Roy, who’s already run out of stocks from last year’s crop, plans to sell some green sweet potatoes at the beginning of the 2002 season. Having new greens together with CA volume from last year could depress the market, he said.