Wada farms laborers harvest sweet potatoes.
Wada farms laborers harvest sweet potatoes.

This year’s North Carolina sweet potato deal is running later and smaller than normal.

Thanks to 20% fewer acres and planting disruptions, retailers can expect higher prices for Thanksgiving and Christmas promotions.

Heavy May and June rains during transplanting pushed harvesting back by almost a month and is expected to produce average yields.

The lack of volume also forced many shippers to scramble to provide enough cured product for the holidays.

Because of the tardiness, shippers don’t expect to begin shipping cured new crop potatoes until early to mid-October, about a month later than usual.

Buyers shouldn’t look for discounts they have become accustomed to for the Thanksgiving pull, said Jeff Scramlin, the Raleigh, N.C.-based director of business development for Wada Farms Marketing Group LLC, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

“Our growers, like most here in North Carolina, will struggle to have enough cured product ready for the Thanksgiving holiday season,” Scramlin said in early October.

“Product will be tight, especially through November, but we should have better supplies of cured sweet potatoes available by Christmas.”

Scramlin said buyers should expect an above-average market for jumbos as many of the late planted acres won’t size up in time before growers’ harvesting window closes in early November.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, North Carolina growers planted 58,000 acres, down from last year’s 63,000 acres.

Stewart Precythe, president and chief executive officer of Faison, N.C.-based Southern Produce Distributors Inc., agrees supplies will be lighter for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

A late September tropical depression dumped up to 3 inches of rain on the growing region and Precythe said the rain helped mature the potatoes and increase sizings.

“We have stored some good quality potatoes this year,” he said in early October.

“We will have a good supply of cured sweet potatoes through Thanksgiving and there will be supplies for Christmas and Easter. After Easter, we will see supplies really tighten in North Carolina but they could tighten before. Price points will definitely be higher this Thanksgiving and Christmas than in previous years.”

Wayne E. Bailey Produce Co., Chadbourn, N.C., didn’t start its harvesting until Sept. 9 and George Wooten, president, didn’t expect full volume harvesting to begin until early October.

Crop maturities were running late and this year’s crop represents the smallest number of sweet potatoes harvested to date in many years, he said.

“The shape and quality look good,” he said in early October.

“We just have low numbers. The first ones out of the ground seem a bit light and the yields are off 15% to 20%, but it may pick up. We will have adequate supplies for Thanksgiving. Retailers can definitely expect higher prices for Thanksgiving.”

The 30 growers that Nash Produce Co. packs for began harvesting Sept. 17, about two weeks later than normal, said Thomas Joyner, general manager of the Nashville, N.C.-based operation.

“I would anticipate good quality sweet potatoes out of North Carolina,” he said in early October.

“Sizings are still small and yields are a little lower than what we have seen over the past few years. We are hopeful that improves but are very fortunate we have a good quality crop.”

Nash plans to begin shipping new crop cured potatoes in late October.

Vick Family Farms, Wilson, N.C., began harvesting Sept. 10.

“Quality looks excellent,” Charlotte Vick, partner, said in early October.

“Though growing conditions were not that great at first, yields and quality are much better than originally expected.”

The smaller sizing means higher prices for jumbos, said Jimmy Burch, co-owner of Burch Farms, Faison, N.C.

“Quality is very nice,” he said in early October.

“It will only be a smaller size profile. Last year, we gave away jumbos the whole deal, which sold for $5-6. This year, we’re getting $9-10, where the price needs to be.”

In early October, the USDA reported movement of old-crop potatoes continuing to decrease as some shippers were finishing with their 2012 crop inventories and transitioning to the 2013 crop.

The USDA reported these prices for 40-pound boxes of old-crop orange variety sweet potatoes from eastern North Carolina: $16-18 for No. 1s; $12-14 for U.S. No. 1 petites; $8-9 for U.S. No. 2s; and $9-10 for no grade marks jumbos.

Last year in late October during the first season report of new cured crop potatoes, the USDA reported $13-15 for the No. 1s.

North Carolina growers typically finish harvesting by Nov. 15.