Rising demand for Southern sweet potatoes shows no signs of letting up, grower-shippers say as they head into harvests.

Mike Kemp, vice president of brand development for Nixa, Mo.-based Market Fresh Produce LLC, expects a good transition from old crop to new-crop sweet potatoes and strong demand to follow.

“Consumer demand continues to grow every year,” Kemp said.

Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms Inc. began harvesting sweet potatoes the week of Aug. 13, about two weeks earlier than typical.

That early start won’t put a crimp in the company’s marketing plans for 2012-13, though, co-owner Jimmy Burch Sr. said. Burch Farms ran out of its 2011-12 crop in late July. In early August the company was helping its neighbors move the remainder of their old-season crops.

“It will be a real smooth transition,” Burch said.

Kim Matthews, co-owner of Wynne, Ark.-based Matthews Ridgeview Farms, also expects an orderly segue from old to new crop this season.

“We have enough (storage sweet potatoes) to make it through, but when it’s time for new crop, we’ll be ready,” she said. “We have a sufficient supply (of old crop) but nothing extreme.”

The 2012-13 season should be another banner year for movement, Matthews said.

“The growth in demand has been absolutely enormous,” she said. “I can’t even explain it.”

Sales growth among existing customers has been particularly satisfying, Matthews said.

“It’s great to get new customers, but when you’re growing among your existing customers, everything’s working exactly right.”

Prices to remain low

Prices likely will stay about the same as old crop yields to new crop, Burch said.

They can’t go much lower, he said.

“They’ve about bottomed out — I don’t see them getting any cheaper,” he said. “I think they’ll stay flat.”

Cheap prices have a silver lining, Burch said.

“Seventy-nine cents (a pound) in the stores is a good thing. You get more consumption.”

Burch said he is happy retailers are passing the savings along to customers.

Lower prices this year can be traced at least in part to higher acreage, Burch said. Even with consumption constantly on the rise — an average of 5% the past five years or so, Burch estimates — there’s only so much the market can bear.

“Acreage was up 20% in North Carolina last year — we kind of overdid it,” he said.

Burch Farms, like other Tar Heel State growers, scaled back its plantings this year.

“We’re down 5,000 acres in North Carolina this year,” Burch said. “That will get supply and demand back in line.”

For the long term, Burch has no concerns about sweet potato demand, thanks in large part to continuing good nutritional news.

“It’s the No. 1 healthy vegetable in the world,” he said. “We got a little too bullish last year, but long-term, the sweet potato deal is going to be great.”