Strong market prices and the ability to cope with less moisture than most crops have Mississippi’s peanut growers expanding their acreage again this year.

Peanuts have been increasingly popular since the farm bill ended the quota system in 2002 and allowed farmers to plant as many acres in peanuts as they wanted.

Mike Howell is the area agronomics agent with Mississippi State University’s Extension Service based in Harrison County. He said some growers are trying peanuts for the first time in 2008, and some previous growers have expanded their acreage.

“Mississippi will increase acreage again this year to 22,000 to 25,000 acres, up from 18,000 last year,” Howell said. “There is a lot of new interest in the northeast part of state, in part because peanuts are one of our most drought-tolerant crops.”

Howell said the state’s growers averaged 3,500 pounds per acre after last year’s drought, just slightly below previous averages in the 3,600-to 3,700-pound range. Less than 4 percent of the state’s peanut crop is irrigated. To date, growers are enjoying their best start in years.

“Growers also are seeing an exceptional market for peanuts now. Last year, prices were running around $450 per ton, and this year they are running in the $500-plus per ton range and are expected to continue strong,” he said. “Those are the best prices growers have seen since the quota system ended in 2002.”

Howell said another bonus for north Mississippi growers this year is the addition of a second buying point for the state in Aberdeen. The original buying point in Anguilla across in the Delta is still available.

“A second buying point will keep the peanuts local, reduce trucking costs and allow growers more time in the fields,” he said. “It also shows an interest in Mississippi peanuts.”

George County Extension director Mike Steede said the increase in the cost of freight has kept prices from going up even more. Shellers often — but not always — have to consider transportation costs when they price peanuts. Higher fuel costs mean less money available for the peanuts themselves.

Steede said while strong prices and drought tolerance are important, a major reason Mississippi growers are attracted to peanuts is their ability to rotate this crop with cotton.

“There is good money in peanuts, but growers really have to rotate another crop for a year or two in between peanut plantings,” Steede said. “While peanuts can cope with less rain than most other crops, they still need moisture to germinate and become established early in the growing season and then to fill out the nuts later.”

Howell said peanuts have had more than normal insect pressure this year. Specialists are unsure what might be triggering the increase.

“Growers have sprayed several fields for caterpillar pests, and we usually try not to spray at all for them or wait until late fall,” Howell said. “We also have seen alfalfa hoppers and wireworms. Wireworms are difficult to control because they live under the soil. They feed on the roots and can feed on the nuts eventually. A common pest of peanuts, wireworms are more frequent following a grass crop. The best way to control them is to put out a pesticide during planting.”

Howell said diseases are not being detected yet. Some of the earliest peanuts are starting to get fungicide applications to prevent disease development.