Getting sweet potatoes out of California’s Merced County grower-shippers has been akin to pulling teeth of late.

There’s light ahead for sweet potatoes

Don Schrack
Staff Writer

Not because they don’t want to sell the tubers.

The problem is a nearly empty pipeline.

In a normal year, the summer/fall crop would have started coming out of the ground a couple of weeks ago.

This is not a normal year in California.

What seemed to be never-ending cycles of a few cool, rainy days followed by a few warm, dry days in spring and early summer wreaked havoc with planting, cultivating and fertilizing schedules.

Compounding the delayed harvest was that some of the potatoes “didn’t store well for anybody in California,” said Jeremy Fookes, salesman with AV Thomas Produce, Livingston, Calif. As a result, packout rates were down substantially, he said.

The flipside is that grower-shippers moved a lot of product early, which has led to the July supply gap — and that proved to be a positive, Fookes said.

“Instead of losing 500 or 600 bins, we could have lost 5,000 or 6,000 bins,” he said.

Digging is scheduled to begin — at the latest — by Aug. 1 at AV Thomas.

“Once it’s going, retailers are going to have plenty of supply for the Canadian Thanksgiving at the end of October, and that gears us up for our big holiday push,” Fookes said.

When the summer/fall crop shipping begins, f.o.b.s could be up a few notches.

“It’s going to start with an active market, for sure,” Fookes said.

For Livingston-based California Sweet Potato Growers Inc., the start of shipping could be as much as three weeks later than normal, said Sarah Alvernaz, sales/general manager. But the wait will be worth it.

“Quality will be as good or better than any other year,” she said. “The potatoes just need a little longer in the ground.”

First out of the fields will be the covington variety, Alvernaz said, with the red-flesh dianes a week or so later.

It is a similar delayed start picture at Garcia Farms Produce, Livingston.

“We’ll probably see some new crop from our growers by the second week in August,” said Frank Mesa, sales manager.

While Mother Nature created some scheduling problems, there is an upside, he said.

“Outside of the cool spring weather, the growing season has been perfect,” Mesa said.

Garcia Farms will be shipping limited supplies in early August, he said, and “we’ll ramp up by the end of August.”

The 2010 deal from Garcia Farms should be bigger than fall 2009.

The company and its growers have increased acreage about 12%, Mesa said, a move dictated by demand.

“We hope to be in a better position to supply the growth that our customers have experienced,” he said.

So it’s a good news/bad news scenario for the California sweet potato industry and its customers.

Sweet potatoes from Merced County will be hard to find for another couple of weeks, but grower-shippers are promising promotable supplies by the end of August.

And if the weather continues to cooperate, the quality of the sweet potatoes will make it worth the wait.

E-mail dschrack@thepacker.com

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