Hurricane Irene hurt some North Carolina crops, but not sweet potatoes, which welcomed the moisture after a dry summer.

By Sept. 23, about one-fourth of the North Carolina sweet potato crop had been dug, with harvest schedules running right on time, said Sue Johnson-Langdon, executive director of the Smithfield-based North Carolina SweetPotato Commission.

Dunn, N.C.-based Godwin Produce Co. was about one-third dug by the week of Sept. 26, said David Godwin, the company’s owner.

Godwin Produce expects to begin shipping cured product the first week in November, right on schedule, Godwin said.

With acreage jumping from 56,000 in 2010 to 65,000 in 2011, this year was scheduled to be one of the biggest crops in the state’s history, Johnson-Langdon said.

Hurricane Irene took care of that, however.

“There are some low-lying areas that will not even be dug,” Johnson-Langdon said.

Irene took up to 20% of the 2011 crop out of commission, she said.

Those sweet potatoes that have been dug or will get dug, however, look great, Johnson-Langdon said. And Irene helped fields that had been suffering from drought.

“A significant portion was dry, and they got the water they needed,” she said.

Other North Carolina crops were hit harder by Irene’s high winds than sweet potatoes were, said George Wooten, owner and chief executive officer of Chadbourn, N.C.-based Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co.

“Sweet potatoes are more close to the ground, so wind doesn’t really bother them,” Wooten said.

As for Irene-related rain, Wayne E. Bailey’s fields got about 2 1/2 inches — and more wouldn’t have hurt.

“Some growers got more than we did, and even they didn’t get hurt,” Wooten said. “Irene was more of a benefit than damage.”

Godwin Produce was among the grower-shippers that could have used even more than Irene delivered, Godwin said.

Nevertheless, even though yields will likely be down for Godwin Produce, quality was looking very good in late September.

“We had a very dry year, but what we’ve dug is a lot better than what we were expecting,” Godwin said. “What we have so far looks wonderful.”

Hurricane Irene, devastating elsewhere in the state, was just what the doctor ordered for Godwin Produce, whose fields received up to 2 1/2 inches of rain from the storm.

“We didn’t get hurt by it at all — we needed the rain,” Godwin said.

Rains from Irene helped spuds size up, so much so that size profile should be bigger than last season, said Steven Ceccarelli, owner of Faison, N.C.-based Farm Fresh Produce Inc.

“Production may be up a bit,” he said.

“We were a bit on the small side last year. We had a good amount of water from the hurricane, and it’s been great.”

Plenty of jumbos will be on hand for shipments in 2011-12, Ceccarelli said. Smaller spuds will be harder to come by.

Farm Fresh shipped uncured new-crop sweet potatoes from North Carolina in late September. Cured shipments were expected to begin the week of Oct. 3, Ceccarelli said.

Faison-based Burch Farms Inc.’s fields received 6-8 inches of rain from Irene — not a drop too much, according to partner Jimmy Burch.

“We were so dry it didn’t hurt a thing,” he said. “It helped us all out. We were bone dry.”

Burch Farms lost an acre here and there because of the rain, but “not enough to talk about,” Burch said.

Burch Farms started shipping cured new-season sweet potatoes Sept. 27, Burch said. He reported excellent quality and said his company should ship up 10% more volume than last season.

Most of his fellow shippers had similar news to report.

“Everybody I’ve talked to is in a good mood,” he said.

“The crop looks really good.”

Wayne E. Bailey began shipping new crop potatoes in mid-September, Wooten said. The last of the company’s 2010-11 cured crop left the shed on Sept. 27, providing a smooth transition from one crop to the next, he said.

Yields in fields that were moist when fruit set are high, while sets are lighter on later fields more affected by drought, Wooten said.

Those extremes should balance each other out, producing average yields for the crop considered as a whole, he said.

The rains from Irene helped potatoes size up, but they couldn’t do anything about sets, which were established earlier in the summer.

That, Godwin said, is the reason for expected lower yields this year.

The increase in acreage statewide and the lower yields will likely cancel each other out, Godwin said, with production remaining about the same as in 2010.

In addition to good quality, size profile was normal as of late September, Johnson-Langdon said. Godwin Produce also expected an average size profile, Godwin said.

Demand should start to pick up about Oct. 1 before the holiday peaks, she said.

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., reported good yields and excellent quality at the end of September.

The only wrinkle was sizing, he said.

Winds from Hurricane Irene blew down tobacco plants down, and as a result, growers of tobacco and sweet potatoes were forced to devote more time to their tobacco crops.

As a result, sweet potato harvests started one or two weeks later than their typical late August/early September starts, Precythe said. That gave spuds extra time to plump up.

“We’ve got a higher percentage of jumbos than I’d like,” he said.