(Oct. 8) Excessive rain continues to postpone the South’s sweet potato harvest, grower-shippers say.

Bryce Malone, executive director of the Louisiana Sweet Potato Commission, Baton Rouge, said Hurricane Lili, which hit land on Oct. 3, produced up to 6 inches of rain across the state. He said some locations experienced strong winds that knocked out electricity, which made it difficult for controlled-atmosphere houses to operate.

“But from what I can tell, when the electricity is out they can still open doors for ventilation, and it wouldn’t be too much of a problem. So for the ones that were already in storage, they should do OK,” Malone said.

The state has yet to determine the amount of crop loss caused by the two storms. Malone said that in the eastern part of Louisiana, where the eye of Lili passed, grower-shippers wouldn’t know what the damages were until the ground dried out enough to start digging again.

And it’s been hard for the ground to dry out because, in addition to Lili and Tropical Storm Isidore, both of which hit the area within one week of each other, more rain fell throughout the region the weekend of Oct. 5.

“We did get additional rain in the southern part of the state this weekend,” Malone said. “Obviously, there will be some (losses) due to the water.”

Before Lili, Malone said, the state had harvested about 50% of its crop. On Oct. 7 grower-shippers in northern Louisiana, who grow about two-thirds of the state’s sweet potatoes, were back in the fields digging. But in southern Louisiana, Malone said, grower-shippers hadn’t been back in the fields to dig since Lili came through.

“There should be about a week of harvest delays for some people,” Malone said.

Wayne Garber, partner at Garber Farms, Iota, La., said no one knows exactly how much damage the crop suffered but that each bout with rain prolongs the harvest and could exacerbate the damage. He said the longer the harvest is delayed, the closer the area is to having potential freeze problems.

“We are set up to incur some damage. It looks like 5% to 10% statewide as of right now, but the rain last night makes me say maybe at 10%. Another rain could put us about 20%. The ground gets wet and stays wet. It doesn’t allow oxygen to the potatoes, so they will spoil,” Garber said.

On Oct. 7, f.o.b.s were $12 per 40-pound carton. Garber said there had been a lot of discussion that morning about raising the f.o.b. He said that on Oct. 21, he was expecting prices to increase to $13.

“I don’t think there is any doubt that prices will go up,” Garber said. “It usually takes 10 days to two weeks to raise prices. Last week there was a range of $11.50-12 per carton, and today it’s a firm $12.”

Although some of the other Southern states like Mississippi and Alabama didn’t take a direct hit from Lili like they did Isidore, grower-shippers have the same fear that every day of harvest delay might cause more crop loss.

Benny Graves, secretary and treasurer of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Vardaman, home of the main sweet potato growing region in the state, said the area picked up 2½ inches to 3inches of rain, but the biggest concern was the lost harvest time.

“We have 45% of our crop harvested at this time, but rain last night is keeping people out (of the fields) today and possibly tomorrow,” Graves said on Oct. 7. “We are losing a couple days every week due to wet conditions. We are in a holding pattern, waiting on dry weather to get here to complete our harvest.”