“Last year, we paid out $10 million from this shipping point to our peanut growers. That’s money that goes into local communities and circulates several times over. “Additionally, we use mostly local contractors and local labor for all our construction work, plus local truck drivers for hauling. We have five full-time workers here at the plant and 30 seasonal workers.”

One advantage of growing peanuts in new areas, such as in the Mid-South, is a reduced disease incidence, Atkins says. “Growers here have to spray fungicides for disease control only three or four times per season, compared to seven or eight in Georgia. That’s a substantial cost savings.

“White mold is our main disease threat. But our agronomist/consultants, Alan Blaine and Mitt Wardlaw, work with growers on production issues and problems such as diseases. They’re very good about advising growers to spray only when necessary. Every application you don’t have to make is just that much more toward the bottom line.

“Also, we stress to our growers the importance of rotation in order to help keep down diseases. We recommend a three-to-one rotation with corn or cotton.

“Our soils here are high in calcium, and we don’t have to apply gypsum the way they do in Georgia or other traditional production areas, which is another cost savings.”

Until recent years, the Mid-South has been only a minor player in peanut production. Under the government quota program that was in effect for decades, the bulk of U.S. peanut acreage was in Georgia and the Carolinas.

“There wasn’t enough acreage here to justify the expense of a support infrastructure,” Atkins says. “When quotas were eliminated in the 2002 farm bill, anyone could grow peanuts.

“Birdsong was the first company to come in and work with Mississippi farmers who were interested in growing the crop. They invested $8 million in this facility in 2005 and have expanded the operation as acreage has increased.

“It was something of a gamble, with peanuts at only $400 a ton at the time, and growers who were completely new to the crop. But the long term outlook here was good, particularly in view of declining water supplies in the Texas panhandle and disease problems and urban sprawl in the Carolinas and Virginia.

“Mississippi has more peanut acres this year than Virginia, a long-time major production area, which has been hurt by diseases and urban sprawl.”

Atkins himself says peanuts played a role in a career change for him and a cropping change on their family’s farming operation.

“I was raised on our farm, where we grew mostly cotton. When the bottom fell out of the cotton market, we knew we couldn’t survive on loan rate cotton and looked for an alternative. We started growing peanuts and have done well with them — they’ve helped keep the farm in business.”

After earning his degree in agricultural engineering technology and business at Mississippi State University, Atkins was Extension agent in Lowndes County, Miss., for 12 years before joining the Birdsong operation.

He and his wife, Misti, also have a store, MS Peanut Supply Co., at nearby Aberdeen, which sells diggers, combines, chemicals, and anything related to production.

“We buy in bulk and pass the savings on to our growers,” he says, “plus they don’t have to do long distances to get what they need.”

This year will be important to the future of peanuts in the Mid-South, Atkins says. “If growers have a good year and feel good about their peanut experience, they’ll increase acres in the years ahead.”