Update: Sweet potato harvest halted after Hurricane Florence

Sweet potato growers in North Carolina will be out in numbers this week assessing their fields in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence.

After crossing the North Carolina coast on Friday, Florence has dumped record rainfall, particularly over southeastern parts of North Carolina. Due to the slow movement of the system, rain and flooding are the most significant risk factors for growers and the wider community in general. Interstate 95 remains closed.

Sweet potato harvest still shut down
As of now, the harvesting of sweet potatoes has ceased until growers assess the fields and form an accurate estimate of the damage. Packing and shipping operations have also been stopped as the state gets back up and running, which will likely take several weeks.

"Eastern NC received anywhere from 8 inches of rain to over 25 inches in places," said Charlotte Vick of Vick Family Farms in Wilson. "We are fortunate our employees are all safe and sustained little damage locally. Flooding will be an issue over the next week and we will be assessing the damage to crops over the next few days. For us personally we are blessed to have only received around 8 inches as of today."

"It will be some time before we can resume sweet potato harvest," she continued. "Our packing facility will be closed until later this week because of so many roads being closed including Interstate 95 and not being able to get trucks in to load. We appreciate continued prayers especially for our neighbors east and south of Wilson who sustained much more rainfall and damage. We are so thankful because this storm could have been much worse."

Along with the water damage and the closed roads, many people are having a hard time even getting to work. Not only are they cleaning up, but some companies have said that workers are simply unable to access the workplace which is contributing to the shutdown.

"The main problem was that there was so much water," said Kelley Precythe of Southern Produce Distributors. "It's still too early to assess the damage as we still can't access the fields. Additionally, being sweet potatoes, we can't physically see the crop because it is underground. Right now, we are focusing on opening up roads, getting power back and working through logistical issues. Some employees can't even leave their homes yet so it will be quite some time before we can get back into harvest. We are just glad that everybody in our company is safe and we will continue to work along with the community to return everything back to normal."

Assessment of fields
Many sweet potato growers commented that they will assess fields this week which will give a more accurate picture of the after effects and subsequent impact on the 2018/19 season. If the news is not good, it would be a blow to growers, who have been suffering through low prices for some time. This year was looking promising because a good crop was in the ground thanks to excellent growing conditions through the summer.

"This week, we are looking to assess the fields," said Kristi Hocutt of Triple J Produce in Sims, North Carolina. "If the rain stays away it will be at least another week before harvesting can begin. I am afraid that acreage will be lost and there is potential for a once healthy crop in the ground to be strained."

Jeff Thomas, of Scott Farms, said they are in the same situation, waiting for the rains and water to subside in order to be able to assess the fields. He also stressed the importance the company's experience as well as their Food Safety Program is in events such as this.

"The winds were less of a factor than the rain," he shared. "Scott Farms has tried to mitigate this as much as possible before the season even started with our Food Safety Program which addresses these types of events. Although we can't control Mother Nature, the fact that our fields are not flooded now is a testament to our program, along with the vast farming knowledge and experience of the Scott family. When we are able, we will be assessing the fields to see as to what extent our season will be affected. Our new environmentally-controlled storage facility will be able to handle product quickly which is a reassurance for us. At the end of the day, the main thing is that all our people are safe and sound."

More updates are likely to come as the weeks progress, once it becomes clear as to what level of damage growers have sustained. 

For more information:
Charlotte Vick
Vick Family Farms
Tel: +1 (252) 237-7313

Kelley Precythe
Southern Produce Distributors
Tel: +1 (800) 688-9267

Kristi Hocutt
Triple J Produce
Tel: +1 (252) 235-0100

Jeff Thomas
Scott Farms
Tel: +1 (919) 284-4030

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