Many South Mississippi farmers have rotated peanuts with corn, soybeans and other crops to get through tough times, and word is spreading that this strategy can work for their counterparts in the northeast part of the state.
Peanuts make a good rotational crop because they are drought-tolerant, require less labor than other alternatives and have good loan assistance support. The marketing assistance loan for peanuts is $355 per ton, which in the minds of many farmers, beats “50-cent cotton.”
“Many of our peanut farmers are able to obtain more than just the market loan price when they contract with peanut buyers,” said Ken Hood, agricultural economist with the Mississippi State University Extension Service.
“Peanut farmers will say they can pay for peanut production with the first ton per acre and make a little extra money with the second ton.”
This is a good proposition for farmers in northeast Mississippi who have struggled with making a living from raising cotton.
“Peanut production has revitalized agriculture in northeast Mississippi,” said Don Self, who grows peanuts with his father, Dennis, and his son, Dustin, near Hamilton, Miss. “I’ve been in cotton production for most of my life, but we can’t make a living if those prices don’t come up.”
Self, who hopes to plant 750 acres of peanuts this year, said the irony of the current price situation is that peanuts and cotton are good in rotation.
“An optimum rotation for dryland production common in northeast Mississippi is to plant peanuts, then corn, then cotton, then another year of cotton and then back to peanuts,” he said. “The price of cotton has kept us from being able to do just that.”
Self has a seat on the National Peanut Board and said he thinks consumption of peanuts and peanut products will increase because of the board’s promotions and consumer outreach, including the launch of a new nationwide advertising campaign in New York City in March.
“Some of the top chefs are creating dishes that take peanuts from a snack food to the center of the plate,” Self said. “The board wants to increase the use of peanuts in culinary avenues and we think our farmers will benefit from this effort.”
The establishment of a buying point plant in Aberdeen, Miss., also has influenced many farmers to consider raising peanuts. The plant, a state-of-the-art drying and grading facility owned by Birdsong Peanuts, opened in 2008 and offers farmers a convenient way to market their peanuts.
Farmers who sign contracts with Birdsong can take their peanuts to the plant to check moisture content and grade. The peanuts are shipped to the company’s warehouses in Blakely, Ga., to be sold and shipped to food manufacturers and suppliers.
The newness of peanuts as a crop for northeast Mississippi has allowed farmers there to avoid one problem common in traditional peanut production areas, such as Georgia and Alabama, and even in south Mississippi. When farmers continue to plant peanuts for many years, disease organisms in the soil build up over time. Farmers must rotate crops to break the recurring cycle of these organisms.
“In areas where peanuts are traditionally grown over long periods of time, many farmers have to make from six to eight fungicide applications during the production season,” said Extension area agronomy agent Charlie Stokes, who is based in Aberdeen.
“In northeast Mississippi, we are on a spray-as-needed basis, and this helps when each fungicide application can cost up to $25 an acre.”
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reported that Mississippi farmers planted 22,000 acres of commercial peanuts in 2008, averaged 3,900 pounds per acre and harvested more than 81,900 tons.
Nationally, farmers planted 1.53 million acres of peanuts last year and yielded more than 5.15 billion pounds. The national average yield was 3,416 pounds per acre.
Last year’s salmonella scare and subsequent removal of peanut-based food products hurt sales. Statistics from the National Peanut Board show that Americans ate 600 million pounds of peanuts and 700 million pounds of peanut butter last year.
“More than 99 percent of consumers I talked with on one of my trips to New York who said they regularly eat peanut butter also said they never stopped despite the scare,” Self said. “That is encouraging, and we hope Americans continue their love of peanuts and peanut butter.”