There is no reason to expect a surplus of sweet potatoes, despite the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s January report that overall sweet potato production increased by about 7% in 2009.

Higher production in 2009 does not necessarily mean more fresh sweet potatoes are in storage right now. In fact, some supplies are so low that grower-shippers predict shortages in parts of the country.

North Carolina and California growers saw increased production. However, Louisiana and Mississippi growers took a hard hit, with excessive rains during the fall harvest forcing growers to leave potatoes in the field or ship them for processing instead of fresh market sales.

If potatoes absorb too much water, they break down in storage, so those are sent for processing, said Charles Walker, executive secretary of the U.S. Sweet Potato Council, Columbia, S.C.

Fall rain cuts Mississippi, Louisiana crops

 

USDA data

Louisiana

  • In 2009, 14,000 acres planted and 12,000 harvested.
  • In 2008, 15,000 acres planted and 11,000 harvested.

Mississippi

  • In 2009, 20,000 acres planted and 11,000 harvested.
  • In 2008, 20,000 acres planted and 19,500 harvested.

Louisiana’s total 2009 production (including fresh market and processing sweet potatoes) was actually higher than in 2008, but that’s because 2008 was such a poor year, Walker said.

The 2009 Louisiana crop was 73% of its five-year average. Mississippi’s crop was just 42% of its five-year average, Walker said.

“We are tremendously short,” said Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Starkville. “We are not even a major player in the market now because of low supplies.”

In mid-February, Graves said Mississippi growers had in storage only about 10% of the supply they had last year at the same time.

They lost about 75% of the 19,000 acres planted in the state, and pack outs are light on the acres that remained. Some grower-shippers already were sourcing sweet potatoes from other states in order to supply their regular customers, he said.

Even with fewer supplies, sweet potato shipments have been up. USDA Market News reported that fresh and processed sweet potato shipments increased substantially for the 2009 crop, Walker said.

Shipments from California during the last quarter of 2009 were up 66% from the previous year, and North Carolina’s shipments were up 44%, he said.

Even more striking: market reports showing an increase of 112% for California shipments during the first seven weeks of this year as compared to 2009.