ACROSS MISSISSIPPI — The cool, damp nights that are making it feel like fall in Mississippi are slowing peanut harvests way down across much of the state.
Mississippi’s peanut crop was 28 percent harvested as of the last U.S. Department of Agriculture Crop Progress and Condition Report released Sept. 30. Because of the federal government shutdown, no new figures have been released in almost two weeks. At the end of September, 48 percent of the crop was listed in good condition, with 13 percent excellent and 39 percent fair.
Malcolm Broome, executive director of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association, estimated the crop was not more than a third harvested by mid-October.
“We’ve had damp, cool weather, and the peanuts are not maturing as fast as they should,” Broome said. “If we get into cool, wet weather in November, we could have acres of peanuts left in the ground and not harvested at all. We need a month of cool, dry weather to finish up.”
Peanut harvest is a two-part process. Producers first use inverters to turn peanuts out of the ground. After the peanuts dry for a few days, growers pick them up with combines.
“Instead of being able to pick at 10 in the morning, growers have to wait until 1 or 2 in the afternoon for the peanuts to have finally dried off,” Broome said.
He said growers planted 32,455 acres of peanuts, which is less than the 52,000 acres planted in 2012 but more than originally anticipated. Broome said he expects yields to be about 3,600 to 3,800 pounds per acre, less than the 2-ton average typical in Mississippi.
“It just kept raining once the crop was planted. A lot of the applications for fungicide couldn’t get on in time,” Broome said. “Then there was a drought pocket in the Delta from about Jackson to Greenwood that hurt peanuts.”
Charlie Stokes, the Mississippi State University Extension Service area agronomy agent who works with peanut growers in northeast Mississippi, explained why growers need favorable weather in October and November.
“It usually takes three days to dry out peanuts once a digger has gone through the field and turned the peanuts on top of the ground,” Stokes said. “On overcast days, you don’t get much drying, but when there is sunshine and a little breeze, that helps them dry out quickly.”
Dry peanuts are harvested with a peanut combine that picks the crop up off the ground and pulls the individual legumes off the vine with the kernels still in the shell.
“The problem with peanuts is harvesting efficiency. A peanut combine is real slow,” Stokes said. “Although an inverter can quickly dig up acres of peanuts, a grower must have one combine for every 250 to 300 acres of peanuts.”
Peanuts grow best on sandy soil, and much of the state’s peanut production is found near George County in southeast Mississippi. Heavy soil can cause problems if untimely rains keep the ground wet and prevent harvest. Peanuts work well in rotation with crops that are not legumes, such as cotton or corn.
Judd Gentry, Panola County Extension director, said the Delta has seen a significant increase in peanut acreage in recent years, but prices drove plantings down this year. The state had 47,000 acres of peanuts in 2012, and the crop yielded an estimated value of $52 million.
“I estimate we have less than half the peanut acres we had last year,” Gentry said. “Some of the peanut acres were going to be planted in corn, but we had such a wet spring that many had to be planted in soybeans instead.”
John Michael Riley, Extension agricultural economist, said peanut prices for growers have fallen to an estimated $350 to $400 a ton.
“The high prices of 2011-2012 led to an enormous increase in peanut acres across the U.S. and in Mississippi,” Riley said. “This helped alleviate the tight supply issue, which was the reason for the high prices.”
Most peanuts products are staple food items, and their demand does not fluctuate to the same degree as demand for other products.
Stokes said peanuts remain a profitable crop in the state, even though recent prices are considerably lower than the $750 a ton many growers earned in 2012.
“Even with lower prices, you can still pencil in a profit if you have good or even average yields,” Stokes said.