by Joseph Coletti
Senior Fellow, Fiscal Studies, John Locke Foundation
It is hard to imagine what would be on tables this Thanksgiving if it were not for North Carolina farmers. Because of expanding supplies of both turkeys and sweet potatoes, most families will not know that Hurricane Florence devastated the source of 60 percent of the country’s sweet potatoes and the second largest producer of turkeys. Those of us in North Carolina, however, have reason to be thankful for our neighbors and to pray for their well-being.
Agricultural losses from the storm are now estimated to exceed $1 billion. Roughly a third of that may be from sweet potatoes alone. The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that North Carolina farms produced $346.5 million in sweet potatoes, the fourth most valuable crop in the state. Sweet potato production has expanded from 62,000 acres in 2013 to 90,000 acres in 2017. Because of the dry summer, farmers delayed harvesting. Allan Thornton of the N.C. Cooperative Extension told the Charlotte Observer, “About 90 percent of the state’s sweet potatoes were still in the ground when Florence arrived.”
Even before the storm, farmers had to deal with lower prices for their output, from a high of $24.10 per hundredweight in 2013 to $18.40 in 2017. Retail prices for conventional sweet potatoes are down significantly from last year, at 71 cents per pound compared to $1.33 per pound in 2017.
Prices for turkeys, the other Thanksgiving staple, have fallen 40 percent since January 2016, as supplies have continued to outstrip demand. Turkey suppliers had built up significant inventories as a result. Jayson Lusk, distinguished professor and department head of Purdue University’s agricultural economics department, said: “One has to go back more than a decade to find retail whole frozen turkey prices as low [as they are now].”
Nearly 3.5 million chickens and turkeys died in Hurricane Florence, about 5 percent of the estimated 70 million chickens and 2 million turkeys harvested each month. North Carolina has 33 million turkeys and 819 million chickens living on farms. In addition to farms, the state is also home to House of Raeford Farms, Prestage Farms, and Butterball, the company whose name has become synonymous with turkey.
The North Carolina Poultry Federation states that 5,000 families produce poultry, whether chickens or turkeys, on their farms and another 25,000 are directly employed in the production and processing of birds.
So, whether you deep fry it, roast it, smoke it, or grill it, odds are you can thank a host of your fellow North Carolinians for the turkey you eat on Thanksgiving. That is even truer of your sweet potatoes, but the same cannot be said of the marshmallows that make the sweet potato casserole a favorite in most families.