Sweet potato harvest salvaged: Price increases may offset losses from Hurricane Florence

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Drew C. Wilson | Times

As workers gathered freshly dug sweet potatoes near Lucama, a tractor-trailer loaded with bins struggled to roll through a muddy part of the field Friday.

In that patch, the potatoes are now rotting in the field.

“We pretty much just pick up and go over that part of the field,” said Rob Glover of Glover Farms, who was overseer in the harvest of some 30 acres of the sweet potatoes on land leased from Bass Farms.

“You can see right there, that wet spot, that swag in the field. That’s where all the sour ones are,” Glover said. “The decay is in the swags and bags in the field where the water may not have drained off as fast as it could have earlier.”

Glover blames the 15 inches of rain that came from Hurricane Florence.

“You see how the field drains to that spot?” That’s where all of your damage is,” Glover said. “That’s Hurricane Florence doing its work.”

In the depression, there are few potatoes left to see.

“It’s already rotted off from the storm, but you get out of this wet spot, the potatoes get much better,” Glover said.

The Glovers have about 300 acres of sweet potatoes planted this year around Lucama and Bailey.

Glover figures every field has a wet spot somewhere.

“We’re about 25 percent done with harvest and so far what I am seeing is about 20 percent loss,” Glover said. “I hope it gets better, but I don’t see much changing from all the rain from the storm.”

Glover said the sandy part of the field has a decent yield.

“In the good land, they look good. In the swags and bags, not so good. What potatoes are good are nice-shaped and (have) good skin,” Glover said. “We’ve got some good weather to be harvesting, so that’s a blessing. It’s pretty weather.”

Glover will store the potatoes for about four to six weeks to cure them and they try to make a sale.

“Right now the potato price seems to be trending upward and that’s much-needed also,” Glover said. “The price of labor has gone up every year for the past four or five years.”

In the field Friday, about 50 farmworkers on H-2A temporary work visas gathered the three grades of potatoes into 50- to 55-pound buckets.

The gatherers, many of whom literally run to the trucks with each bucket, are paid 50 cents per bucket. Others are paid the standard $11.46 per hour, which is 19 cents higher than last year.

“Without them, I wouldn’t be able to get the crop out or in,” Glover said of the workers, most of whom are from Mexico.

Tommy Batts, commercial horticulture agent for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension office in Wilson County, said as of Aug. 6, Wilson County had 9,573 acres of sweet potatoes.

The big sweet potato-producing counties were down 6,000 acres and that includes Wilson, Johnston, Wayne, Harnett, Sampson and Duplin, Batts said.

“I know we are going to have some losses in the low areas, but I think what’s going to save us is the price has gone up,” Batts said. “I don’t want to say a price, but they have jumped a fair amount and the biggest reason is south of us, toward southern Wayne, Duplin and Sampson, they are seeing a lot more losses.”

Wilson County came out of the hurricane as being among the few counties that have sweet potatoes.

“So I think we are going to sit pretty there,” Batts said. “We have a decreased supply, so the price goes up. It depends on where you are sending them, but we are seeing a 30-plus percent increase in price, so that is kind of the silver lining in all of this. We have had a lot of catastrophic losses and a lot of issues with this hurricane, but in the grand scheme of things, it might have helped the sweet potato market.”

There’s a demand for them.

“I would say we have still got 60 percent left in the field left to dig,” Batts said. “Some folks are about halfway done. We’ve got some that are done digging and they are already disking up fields.”

Most of the sweet potatoes grown in Wilson County are of the Covington variety, which is fairly resilient, but the risk is if a potato is in a low portion of the field that gets flooded for any period of time.

“If a potato sits in saturated soil for about 24 hours, it’s done,” Batts said. “It might come out of the ground looking all right, but it will probably rot in storage because the processes for rot have already started in that potato.”

The upward trend in pricing may offset this year’s modest losses on yield from the sweet potato crop.

“It’s not going to be a gangbuster year, but I think we are going to be all right,” Batts said.

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Find this story on WilsonTimes.com to see the Glover Farms sweet potato harvest near Lucama.