Peanuts, long associated with the states of Georgia and Virginia, are gaining favor among Mississippi farmers who are adding the nuts in rotation with their more traditional crops.
Back in the 1940s it was common for Mississippi farmers to plant peanuts but they disappeared for the most part until a comeback began in 2005.
Don Self, a cotton farmer in Hamilton, was among the first to plant peanuts in the northeastern part of the state. He credits Dan West for planting the first significant peanut crop in the state. The Self family of farmers followed in 2007. Now Self rotates peanuts with cotton and corn.
“Peanuts revitalized farming for us in our area,” said Self, who is active in peanut business circles. He is Mississippi’s first representative on the National Peanut Board and also is a member of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association.
Broome said that after a drought in Georgia, the largest peanut producer by far, supply and demand kicked in. When the price was high, everybody got in. Mississippi doubled its peanut acres to 50,000 “and everybody else did too.” That’s when the price went down, he said. This year acreage has dropped to 29,000.
“It’s year to year, like a yo-yo,” Broome said. “It’s something the industry is working on to try to get leveled out.”
Right now, Mississippi is seventh in the nation in acres of peanuts. The state is ranked first or second in yield per acre, about two tons on average, he said. Success with the crop has added jobs in the Delta, Broome said.
One economic boost comes from large companies that have bought old facilities including a cotton gin and boat plant for peanut storage. “We now have four delivery points in Mississippi,” Broome said, “including two of the largest peanut warehouses in the nation.” They each can hold 25,000 tons.
Broome said farming peanuts is very labor intensive and expensive to begin with.
“You need at least 300 acres to make it a profitable venture,” he said. And farming them requires a special combine and other tools that farmers have to invest in. About the only piece of equipment that can be used for peanuts and other crops is a tractor.
On the up side, Self said peanut consumption is increasing every year. He likes to spread the word about the nutritional benefits of peanuts as a cheap source of protein. “People are just finding out that peanuts have 30 essential vitamins and nutrients, no transfat, seven grams of protein per one-ounce serving, that they’re good and good for you.”
Of the four types of peanuts grown in a swath from Virginia, across the South and into the Southwest, 80 percent of the most common runner variety goes into peanut butter and candy bars. The Virginia peanut is the familiar in-the-shell ball park treat, the Valencia peanut is the boiling variety and the red-husked Spanish peanut is served by the bowlful at bars everywhere.
Self can attest to the nail biting aspect of peanut farming but he said peanuts fit in to Mississippi farming very well. “It’s a great nitrogen booster for the soil, it prospers well and it’s a great rotation crop.”
Still, he said, the last few years have been a roller coaster with prices going up and down.
“My daddy (Dennis) is 79 years old. I told him if we can survive this learning curve, it will be good. We got 35 inches of rain in 2009 and he asked me, ‘How long is that curve supposed to last, son?’ I’m still learning.”