With the growth in year-round demand for sweet potatoes, holiday demand spikes are less dramatic, but Easter is expected to bring a surge in movement.

Easter, which this year falls on April 4, is traditionally a time of heavy sweet potato movement, said Benny Graves, executive secretary of the Mississippi Sweet Potato Council, Starkville.

The Easter holiday brings the third heaviest movement of sweet potatoes, with demand similar to demand for Christmas, said George Wooten, president of Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C.

In Mississippi, where supplies are low, some grower-shippers have held back sweet potatoes so they’ll have enough for Easter. Others could be out of Mississippi-grown sweets by Easter, but they plan to source from other states to fill orders, Graves said.

Sweet potato production and yields per acre were up in both North Carolina and California in 2009 compared to 2008. Wooten said he expects supplies from North Carolina to be adequate for Easter.

Sarah Alvernaz, general manager of the family-owned cooperative California Sweet Potato Growers, Livingston, said she expects to have plenty on hand even though the poor economy has caused some fluctuation.

“The past two years have been a bit off trend due to the economy,” Alvernaz said. “But every year is a different year, and it’s hard to predict.”

Alvernaz said the cooperative had yet to see an increase in demand that could result from the short crops in Louisiana and Mississippi.

California Sweet Potato Growers markets the beauregard and covington varieties of orange sweets, as well as white sweets, red yams and oriental sweets.

Forty-pound cartons of U.S. No. 1 beauregards from California were priced at $16-18 f.o.b. in mid-February, Alvernaz said. Sweet potatoes from Mississippi were priced the same in mid-February, Graves said.

Wooten said the market in North Carolina was $16-16.50 f.o.b. in mid-February. Last year at the same time, prices were mostly $15-15.50, he said.

On March 8,  the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service reported 40-pound cartons of orange-type North Carolina-grown U.S. No. 1 sweet potatoes were priced at $15-16. In Louisiana and Mississippi, 40-pound cartons ran $17-18.50.

Last year’s prices were comparable, with 40-pound cartons priced at $16-18.

Wooten said he expects supplies to be tight in late summer and prices could rise.

“I’m not sure you’ll see a $20 market in the summer, but it wouldn’t surprise me,” Wooten said.

Demand for sweet potatoes continues to grow steadily. Annual per capita consumption is now at just over 5 pounds compared to 3.8 pounds in 2003, Walker said. North Carolina growers experienced a nearly 37% increase in crop movement by mid-February compared to last year, Wooten said.

“Our movement’s really good,” Wooten said. “We’re not really looking for new customers, just trying to make sure we have adequate supplies for current ones.”