“From now on, it will be a weather/demand market,” he says. “A really large crop could bring prices down, but an average to below-average crop could keep them high. Not a lot of growers had uncommitted peanuts last year to take advantage of the $1,000 price, but many had contracted at $550 and up.”

With the bumper 2011 crop, “Our two 90,000 square foot warehouses were both full,” Atkins says.” We took in 843 18-wheeler loads, or about 18,000 tons. Average yield was about 4,000 pounds for dryland peanuts and 5,000 pounds for irrigated. Most of the peanuts here on the east side of the state are dryland, but peanuts don’t need as much water as other crops and with timely rains can produce well.

“It takes a pretty good investment to make a peanut crop, and a high level of management. But efficient, well-organized farmers can make good money with the crop.

“There was a tremendous amount of enthusiasm for peanuts this year. At a meeting for prospective growers at Clarksdale, Miss., we had more than 130 people attend. We could have signed a lot more growers, but we had to quit because we didn’t want to exceed the level where we knew we could handle everything efficiently and give our growers the best service possible. 

“If this is a successful year, I think we’ll see even more acreage in coming seasons. Once growers learn about our operation and the investments we’ve made in the future of the industry here, they understand that we’re going to be with them for the long haul. We’ll be growing our infrastructure in keeping with acreage increases.

“With our buying point locations at Prairie and Walnut Ridge, we can now ship peanuts east or west.”

With the early planting this year, he says, peanuts are expected to start coming in somewhere around Labor Day, about a month earlier than normal.

“We’ll get the bulk of our peanuts during September and October, and hope to be finished by Thanksgiving, but sometimes we’ll go into early December.

 “We pay the freight to haul our growers’ peanuts here, and we provide the 18-wheel trailers to insure that there is no contamination from other crops or products. The Prairie facility has three dryer sheds and can dry 78 trailer loads per night. The peanuts come in green, at 18 percent moisture or below. Some have to be cleaned first; then they’re dried down and graded. If they’re above 12 percent, they are dried down to 10.5 percent before going into the USDA-inspected warehouses.

“We hold them there until they’re shipped to our shelling plant. Some have to be cleaned first; then they’re dried down and graded, after which they’re placed in the warehouse until we send them to the shelling plant. We can hold them in the warehouse for up to nine months, but they’re a perishable item and we handle them as quickly as possible. This year, we’ll be sending them to the Brownfield, Texas, shelling plant because capacity is available there as a result of last year’s short crop.

“My ultimate goal is to get a shelling plant here in Mississippi, which will take about 100,000 tons of production to justify the $25 million investment.”

All of Birdsong’s Mid-South growers plant the Georgia 06 variety, which performs well in this region, Atkins says. “It’s the main market variety for peanut butter and candy. Peanut butter is the driving force in the peanut market.