Most of North Carolina’s sweet potatoes are still in the ground. “I would say we are behind by two weeks,” says Steven Ceccarelli, President of Farm Fresh Produce. “We started harvesting at the end of August in a very small way, but since the yields were low, we decided to halt harvest temporarily.” At the same time, growers can’t wait much longer to start harvesting in full force due to the uncertainties Mother Nature brings. “In North Carolina, the peak of hurricane season starts in September, and increased activity in the Atlantic this year causes concern. Hurricanes would cause further delay to the harvest of our sweet potato crop, resulting in less time to collect the whole harvest before the first frost,” commented Ceccarelli.”
However, if the weather cooperates, Farm Fresh Produce plans to harvest more product this year than ever before in the company’s 10-year history. “We have planted more acres and although we’ve experienced more than average rainfall this summer, I anticipate avoiding internal problems and long-term storage issues because of our new state of the art storage facility. We are near completion of an additional 60,000 square foot storage expansion and I am optimistic for a good year.”
Farm Fresh team members from left to right: Johnnie Herring - Chief Production Officer, Garret Godwin - Grower Relations, Aaron Wilson - Farm Manager, Danny Joe Pope - Grower.
Not only is Ceccarelli positive about supplies, demand for US sweet potatoes is solid as well. “Domestic market movement is still strong with new opportunities available due to government assisted programs,” he said. The food box program in the US helped soften the decrease in demand suffered by the foodservice/catering sector. Outside the US, European movement is strong for US exporters who still have inventory available. Spain and Egypt are now exporting to Europe and the UK. “However, we have noticed an increased number of retailers remaining with US sweet potatoes despite the lower priced competing countries.”
Retail is primary focus
Back at the start of the pandemic, movement was slow to moderate due to the uncertainty of the virus. However, with everyone staying home, demand at retail stores increased and picked up quickly. Not only are sweet potatoes cooked to be consumed, they also can be stored for a long time. “This was beneficial to shoppers during the stay-at-home mandates.” Farm Fresh was able to benefit from increased retail demand as the company’s primary focus is retail clients in the US, Canada, the UK, and continental Europe.
“The foodservice/catering sector represents only 10 percent of our total yearly revenue along with an additional 10 percent within the process/industry sector,” mentioned Ceccarelli. As a result, demand has continued to be steady over the past six months.
The majority of sweet potato volume is still sold loose per pound or kilogram weight. However, like in many segments of the industry, packaging is becoming increasingly popular. “With our focus on the future, we are constantly looking for better sustainable packaging possibilities as we want to serve our retailers and other customers environmentally conscious products.” In the US as well as internationally, Farm Fresh Produce offers net bags, trays, along with microwaveable and steamable bagged sweet potatoes.