North Carolina sweet potato growers expected continued strong demand in the 2011-12 season.

Fresh-market sweet potato sales were up 16% in 2010-11 for Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., said George Wooten, the company’s owner and chief executive officer.

As a result, Wayne E. Bailey increased its acreage 20% for the 2011-12 season, Wooten said. With average overall yields expected, that means production also should be up about 20%, he said.

That extra production will be necessary to meet ever-increasing demand, especially in late summer before the new cured crop starts coming in.

“We struggle in August and September every year” to meet demand, Wooten said.

“Demand has really been changing the past few years. It’s been really good.”

Media exposure from Rachael Ray, Dr. Oz and others has help boost retail sales, Wooten said.

Faison, N.C.-based Burch Farms Inc. began shipping new-crop cured sweet potatoes Sept. 27, two to three weeks earlier than usual, said partner Jimmy Burch.

But he and other growers aren’t worried about any gluts.

“Everybody’s cleaned up” 2011-12 storage supplies, Burch said.

There’s seldom a concern, in fact, about having too many sweet potatoes. Burch Farms and other shippers just worry about having enough.

“It’s a good time to be a grower,” he said.

“This deal has been really good. People are eating them.”

Burch Farms expects to ship about 1.8 million bushels of sweet potatoes this season, up from 1.6 million bushels last season, Burch said.

Despite the continuing increases in demand, prices will likely be a couple of dollars cheaper per box than last season, Burch said.

A few years ago, Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., predicted North Carolina would crack the 100,000-acre ceiling on sweet potatoes. Nothing that’s happened since has convinced him he’s wrong.

“I still say it’s going to happen,” he said.

“We have 10,000 to 12,000 more acres this year. It’s unbelievable how it’s growing.”

Despite a significant increase in sweet potato acreage in North Carolina in 2011, volumes could wind up being about the same as last season because of drought-caused lower yields, said David Godwin, owner of Dunn, N.C.-based Godwin Produce Co.

All of those extra acres were planted to meet the ever-increasing demand for sweet potatoes, but Godwin wouldn’t speculate on whether there will be enough product late in the season to meet that extra demand, given the yield losses.

“It’s too early to guess,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to cover it, but industrywide, I don’t know yet.”

What’s not in doubt, however, is the fact that more and more Americans are eating more and more sweet potatoes, Godwin said — at home, when they go out to eat, you name it.

“Demand is up across the board,” he said.

And Godwin doesn’t foresee 2011-12 being any different from last season.

“I think that increase in demand will continue,” he said. “I don’t foresee any downturn at all.”

Many North Carolina shippers ended their 2010-11 deals early, said Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Faison-based Farm Fresh Produce Inc.

As a result, prices may not take the usual dip that accompanies the beginning of the new-crop deal.

“Demand’s going to be good, and I don’t see big fluctuations in price,” Ceccarelli said.

“People ran out of last year’s crop earlier than anticipated, and it created good demand.”

Precythe also expects prices to stay in the $14-16 range until the holidays, when they could go up a dollar or two per box.

Prices will likely restabilize before inching up again around Easter, he said.