On a portion of the east Mississippi prairie land that was the site during World War II of a sprawling munitions production complex where 6,000 to 10,000 women packed shells for the U.S. military effort, a giant peanut buying/grading/shipping facility is racing to complete a $3 million expansion of its $10 million plant that expects to handle 24,000 to 30,000 tons of the state’s largest peanut crop since 1943.

The USDA is estimating a 233 percent increase in Mississippi peanut plantings this year, for a total of about 50,000 acres.

This on the heels of the severe drought last year in the major Texas production areas that sent prices skyrocketing to as much as $1,000 per ton at harvest and created widespread producer interest in locations suited to growing the crop.

Mississippi led the nation in peanut yields in 2011, with an average 4,200 pounds per acre. Production is centered mostly in the Delta counties to the west and in the eastern counties along the Tombigbee River.

“Sandy soils and water, an ideal combination for peanuts, make these areas attractive for us,” says Brian Atkins, manager of the Prairie, Miss., buying point for Birdsong Peanuts, a world leader the peanut industry.

The family-owned company, with corporate headquarters at Suffolk, Va., started in the peanut business in 1914 and now has about 35 percent of the U.S. market, with buying points from Virginia to Texas.

Birdsong has 80 buying points and seven shelling plants in the U.S. One of its major customers is Smucker’s, which uses 1 million pounds of peanuts a day and makes Jif, the most popular brand of peanut butter. The peanut butter in Butterfinger candy bars is 100 percent from Birdsong peanuts, Atkins says.

The company is also nearing completion of a new state of the art mega-buying point at Walnut Ridge, Ark., that will be the same size as the Prairie facility. About 25 growers have planted about 9,000 acres for Birdsong in that area, and about 45 Mississippi growers have planted 15,000 to 22,000 acres for the company.

“We’ve got growers from Tylertown to Tunica on the west side of the state and from Tishomingo County to Forrest County on the east side,” says Atkins. “Our territory for this buying point also includes parts of Louisiana, and north Alabama.”

The company is currently evaluating locations for a buying point in the Mississippi Delta, he says, possibly in the Coahoma/Tunica County area.

“A lot of growers have booked peanuts this year in the $750 per ton range,” Atkins says. “At present, no contracts are being offered as growers and buyers wait to see how the season will go.

“Some peanuts were planted as early as April 5 in the Tunica area, and the crops are looking good everywhere. If we can get some timely rains and no weather setbacks at harvest, it should be another good year.