When the Mississippi Department of Agriculture announced in November it was trying to secure disaster relief for the state’s sweet potato industry, which lost an estimated 63% of its 2009-10 crop because of excessive rains, my first question to shippers was: will there be enough yams for Christmas?

North Carolina, California race ahead on sweet potato production

Andy Nelson
Markets Editor

Call me naïve. While I had a vague idea of recent trends in the sweet potato industry, I clearly needed more education on the matter. It came in January, in the form of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s annual Crop Production Summary report.

Despite Mississippi’s woes, 2009 actually saw an increase in U.S. sweet potato production, according to the report. About 19.6 million cwt. were produced last year, up from 18.4 million cwt. the year before.

Even more surprising (to me, at least): North Carolina and California alone accounted for 15.3 million cwt. of that total. That’s more than the entire industry produced as recently as 2002.

Of course, much of that two-state dominance can be contributed to the fall rains, which also affected some Louisiana production.

But that doesn’t change the fact that the Tar Heel State and the Golden State continue to break away from the pack when it comes to sweet potatoes. 

Twenty years ago, North Carolina was, as it is today, the clear industry leader, but it was Louisiana, not California, that was the solid No. 2, producing almost twice as much as industry third-best California.

By the late ’90s, though, California had pulled close to even with Louisiana, and by 2002 it had claimed second place, and it hasn’t looked back since.

California produced 1.5 million cwt. in 1989, 2.4 million in 1999, 3.5 million in 2005 and 5.9 million last year.

Much of that can be attributed to acreage, which rose from 7,700 in 1989 to 17,400 last year. 

But perhaps the more impressive change has been in yields. California has always outyielded the other major growing regions, but the rate at which those yields has grown is astounding.

Yields averaged 170 cwt. per acre in 1988, then rose to 220 in 1998, 235 in 2002, 300 in 2005 and 340 last year. In other words, in a couple of decades, they doubled.

North Carolina hasn’t done too shabby a job, either, with yields rising from 130 to 200 cwt. per acres over than same period.

And as big as California has become, the Tar Heel State, with its huge acreage advantage — 47,000 to California’s 17,400 in 2009 — won’t be relinquishing its title as Sweet Potato King anytime soon.

E-mail anelson@thepacker.com

What's your take on the increase in sweet potato production? Leave a comment and tell us your opinion.