Local sweet potato farmers hope to bounce back after storms
A tractor works in a Ham Farms & Produce field in Snow Hill. Submitted photo
Eastern North Carolina has seen a lot of rain over the last month or so. The rains that fell from two hurricanes, in some areas, seemed as if it were more than has been received all year. The damage from the resulting floods to our homes, schools and towns have been well-documented.
As we head deeper into fall, it is time to harvest one of the most abundant crops in the region: sweet potatoes. How did they fare during the storms?
“We had 45 acres that was under water. We just had to dispose of the whole crop,” Kendall Hill, co-founder of Tull Hill Farms on Hugo Road in Kinston, said. “In some of the other fields we have, we had another 10-15 acres that didn't drain well. The crop is going to be about average this year.“
Despite the damage, Hill tried to stay positive on the outlook for his farm.
“Overall, we didn't have a lot of damage from the hurricane,” he said. “Hurricane Floyd was much worse than this one with the whole farm flooding out. This one was much better for us, all things considering. More people further west lost their crops, especially around Wilson towards Kenly and Goldsboro.”
North Carolina is the nation’s leading producer in sweet potatoes, growing almost 60 percent of the nation’s harvest. The Tar Heel state produces more sweet potatoes than the next three top producing states — California, Mississippi, and Louisiana — combined; almost 1.7 billion pounds of it annually. And the counties of Duplin, Greene, Lenoir, Pitt and Wayne are right at the heart of this agricultural industry.
Sweet potatoes thrive in loamy soils that are well-drained. If it is properly aerated, the crops will thrive. Soils that consist more of clay or sand can still grow potatoes, but they will need more fertilizers and aeration to help to feed them. However, poor drainage will help sweet potatoes become more sour and develop water blisters.
"The agricultural community is a tight-knit community,” Will Kornegay, the senior vice president of sales for Ham Produce Farms in Snow Hill, said. “Florence made a profound impact on us as a whole. We feel for our friends in the community who have suffered from flooding. We feel fortunate that as the hurricane took a more southerly track in our region, we were spared the major impacts of wind and rain. We feel very fortunate for that.“
As for the effects on the harvest, only time will tell. Once the potatoes are ready, local farmers will truly be able to see the coast of the storm.
“We saw more rain than is ideal, in our region in North Carolina,” Kornegay said. “Fortunately for us, we were able to mitigate our crops by planting in low areas and got it early."