By on 11.14.19 in NC in Focus

Ed note: Though we cover a range of demographic topics, we hold a special spot in our hearts for our annual report on NC’s state vegetable, the humble sweet potato. Previous coverage: 2018, 2017, 2015, 2014. Happy Thanksgiving!

Because of back-to-back hurricanes, North Carolina sweet potato production hit a five-year low in 2018. This is a serious consequence of extreme weather, as sweet potatoes are among North Carolina’s most lucrative agricultural exports, contributing more than $170 million to the state’s economy, according to an NC State article looking at the state’s remarkable crop and official state vegetable. (True story: That’s been the case since 1985, when a group of fourth graders from Wilson wrote letters to state legislators urging them to give the official designation to the sweet potato.)

And with good reason – Despite the decline in sweet potato production, North Carolina still remains the nation’s top producer of the Thanksgiving staple. Here’s a quick look at sweet potatoes by the numbers:


North Carolina’s rank in sweet potato production among all 50 states, according to 2018 data from the USDA Agricultural Statistics Service. It has maintained this ranking since 1971.

1.2 Billion

Pounds of sweet potatoes that North Carolina produced in 2018. This is a significant reduction from 2017’s production, which topped out at more than 2 billion pounds.

Last year Tom Karst reported in The Packer that Hurricane Michael may have a serious impact on 2018 harvests, and data suggests that this may be the case. From 2014 to 2017, North Carolina consistently increased its sweet potato production. From 2017 to 2018, however, production dropped by more than 40%, marking the lowest production in 5 years.

2018 marks the first in five years that North Carolina comprised less than half of national sweet potato production. Sweet potato production in billions of pounds, 2000-2018


North Carolina’s share of national sweet potato production in 2018.

Due to the effects of extreme weather and subsequent low harvest, 2018 marked the first year since 2013 that North Carolina accounted for less than half of national production.

$236 Million

Value of the 2018 sweet potato harvest. This harvest was worth approximately 22% less than the previous year ($301 million).

As a result, sweet potatoes dropped from NC’s fourth most valuable crop in 2017 to sixth most valuable, behind tobacco ($479 million), soybeans ($464 million), corn ($408 million), hay/alfalfa ($272 million), and cotton (upland) ($255 million).

North Carolina’s other major exports – tobacco, soybeans, and corn – also netted significantly less money in 2018 than the previous year.

  • Tobacco down 33% in value of total harvest compared to 2017.
  • Soybeans down 28%.
  • Corn down 19%.

Sampson County

As in previous years, Sampson County was the single-largest producer of sweet potatoes in the state, accounting for nearly 12% of production alone in 2018.

Overall, the three leading counties this year were:

  • Sampson (144 million pounds)
  • Johnston (122 million pounds)
  • Lenoir (44 million pounds)

Note: many counties chose to withhold specific production numbers (pdf) to avoid disclosing data on individual farms.

Luckily, farmers are reporting a healthier harvest this year compared to last, which is important as demand continues to grow for one of North Carolina’s signature crops!


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