Noting grower concerns about contracts for 2013, Lutt said, “We’re working with customers on their needs for next year, and on the economics for producers, and we do expect to have a contract out before planting begins. We’re continuing to work on the details.”

“It’s going to be a challenge to overcome this huge crop and huge surplus,” says Alan Ortloff, president of the Clint Williams Company. “China’s purchases may help keep the market from going down, or it may even move it up a bit.

“China is a game changer — but with our surplus, this isn’t going to create high prices.”

The peanut market is “very complicated,” he says. “It’s a moving target, and it’s continuing to develop each week, each month. For the next 8 to 12 months, how much more will China buy? And when will they cut off their purchases? The Argentine crop will become available in late May and June, which will increase supply, and India’s new crop will start coming off in June or July. We don’t know if India will be back in the market in a big way, or their exports will still be limited.”

Only about half the total U.S. peanut acreage was contracted in 2012, Ortloff says, although the percentage was “much larger” in Mississippi, where contract prices as high as $1,000 attracted many new growers.

“The big question now is what will happen to uncontracted peanuts from 2012 and for the 2013 crop. Normally, with a very large crop, the shellers own all the surplus. Manufacturers step back and wait for the market to go down before they buy, and we shellers all compete against each other for the lowest possible price to get the manufacturers to buy from us. It’s a bloodbath. We’ve been there before, and it’s not fun. That’s what we were fearful of this time.

“But this time, a big part of the surplus was uncontracted. The shellers don’t own that part of the surplus; the growers who planted without a contract are the ones taking the risk.”

Some growers in the Southeast have taken the $30 over price that was offered recently, Ortloff says, and others “are sitting back, hoping for more money. A higher price may come about — but I caution everyone not to look for pie in the sky on price.”

The huge crop availability will keep prices from going very high, he says, but China and other factors may keep them from going too low.

“This situation is so different than anything we’ve ever had in the past. Growers who didn’t contract, who were pretty much resigned to taking the loan price, will probably get more than that — but not a great deal more — and it will help keep the market afloat.”

Most shellers are operating around the clock, Ortloff notes. “It’s a difficult pace. We’ve all sold heavily f or the first two quarters of the marketing year, we’re still trying to catch up with the big crop, and we don’t know if we can keep up with demand. Blanching plants are loaded up too, and that’s another factor that will affect markets. Any disruption at shelling facilities, or a dock strike, would have a big impact on the market. “

Analysts say the U.S. will need 1 million to 1.2 million tons less production this year, Ortloff says, “which points to a big reduction in acreage compared to 2012. The price to the grower must be high enough to compete against alternative crops to get them to plant peanuts, but not high enough for them to overplant and push us into another oversupply next year.”

The Southeast and Southwest still have areas of major drought, Ortloff notes, “and nobody knows if we’ll get enough rain before planting time.”

Analysts are projecting that U.S. peanut exports this year will reach 600,000 tons, three times last year’s figure. Some say exports could go as high as 700,000 to 800,000 tons. “800,000 would be four times last year’s exports,” Ortloff says. “That would be huge!”