Rainfall is a blessing most of the time for dryland peanut farmers along the Mississippi Gulf Coast, but it can also be a curse for fighting peanut diseases. For peanut producer Steve Seward, crop rotation, diversity and a strong fungicide program help keep disease in check and yields consistently high.

Seward, who farms with his father, Bud, produces 4,600 acres of cotton, corn, peanuts, wheat, oats and ryegrass and grazes cattle in Jackson County, about 25 miles north of the coast and just west of the Alabama/Mississippi state line. Steve’s mother, Rita, manages the office.

Most of the crops on Seward Farms are rotated to manage disease, and many are double-cropped. “We’ll grow wheat, oats and ryegrass in the winter, and then follow them with cotton or peanuts in the summer,” Seward said.

The Sewards started growing peanuts in 2002 with the phase out of the quota system for peanuts, and now devote about 2,300 acres to the crop. Over the last dozen years, “Peanuts have been a good crop for us,” Seward said.

Peanuts have been good to other producers in Mississippi as well. According to USDA, harvested peanut acres in Mississippi increased from 14,000 acres in 2011 to 47,000 acres in 2012, thanks to expansion in the Mississippi Delta and northeast Mississippi. According to USDA’s Prospective Plantings report, Mississippi producers intended to plant 45,000 acres this spring.

The expansion was accompanied by new buying points for peanuts, which in turn has helped the peanut industry stabilize. That goes for on-farm infrastructure as well, according to Seward.

“Generally, any farmer getting into the peanut industry will have to acquire a lot of equipment specific to peanuts. So when you get there, you’re there,” said Seward, who also serves on the board of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association.

Ideal climate for peanuts

Mississippi’s six coastal counties provide an almost ideal environment for peanuts, thanks to ample rainfall, sandy loam soils and climate. “In the fall, our season is long enough to get the peanuts harvested in a timely manner, Seward said. “The farther north from here, weather gets to be a factor at harvest.”

The Sewards typically start planting peanuts around April 25, and hope to wrap up a month later. “Of course, it’s all weather related,” said the easy-going Seward. “We’re still planting today (May 30).”

At planting, the Sewards run a 12-row, Orthman strip-till to prepare beds on 30-inch rows, followed by a Case IH, 12-row, 30-inch planter.

They plant their peanut acres in Georgia 06G, applying a herbicide behind the planter. Georgia 06G “is hardy in terms of disease and weather pattern. They grade well, but they also yield really well,” Seward said. “The peanut industry is not quite like the soybean and corn industry where you have 50 varieties to choose from. We are limited on our varieties for now.”

After peanuts are up, the Sewards scout to determine when to start their fungicide spray schedule, typically around 45 days after emergence. The fungicide program includes Bravo or Absolute for leaf spot and Abound or Provost for white mold, applied with a John Deere 4730.

The Sewards will stay on a 14-day spray schedule “until peanuts get pretty close to harvest. In late August to early September, we’ll start checking peanuts to see how mature they are. As they get ready, we cut the fungicide off three weeks to four weeks before we dig.”

At harvest, the Sewards run two Amadas self-propelled peanut inverters, two KMC inverters, two Amadas self-propelled combines and two Colombo pull-type combines. The peanuts are delivered at 11 percent moisture to a buying point three miles away, at Wilmer, Ala., or to others in Loxley, Ala., or Atmore, Ala.

The Sewards apply enough seed, fertility and fungicide to make a 5,000-pound peanut yield. “We’ve had some fields that have yielded 5,500 pounds, but we’ve never averaged that much,” Seward said. “We’re happy with 2 tons an acre. Sometimes we do better than that, sometimes we don’t.”

Managing disease long term

To manage disease and fertility longer term, the Sewards rely on diversity, crop rotation and double-cropping.

They follow a peanut crop with oats or ryegrass, run cattle and come back the following year with cotton or corn. “About 50 percent of our peanuts are on a two-year rotation and the rest are on a three-year rotation,” Seward said.

The Sewards purchase small calves at around 300 pounds, then process and condition them. “We raise summer calves on bahiagrass and supplement them with oats. In the fall, we feed oats, plant ryegrass immediately following peanuts or cotton, and they’ll graze on ryegrass all winter. The bulk of them will be sold in May. Most of them leave here weighing around 750 pounds. The land is then rotated to peanuts or cotton.

“The cattle are just like a winter crop. We’re growing ryegrass and selling it through the cows. When we fertilize the ryegrass, we’re also fertilizing the following crop. So we’re spreading our risk out. We’re also putting a lot of organic matter back into the soil with our strip-till.”

The Sewards make three applications of potash and phosphate – in the fall on ryegrass where they intend to double-crop into peanuts, another time in February and again when the ryegrass dies back and they plant peanuts. “Residual is building up in our grass and in our organic matter and as it decays, it’s feeding our crop through the summer. We think that helps us,” Seward said.

The Sewards understand that disease management is the most important cultural practice for a peanut producer. “A piece of land that hasn’t had peanuts on it will probably yield 20 percent more than land that’s had peanuts grown on in the preceding 10 years. That’s primarily from disease pressure. You don’t realize until you get into the business how much disease pressure does affect you.”

The Sewards say new peanut varieties are helping producers manage disease better. “They are more tolerant to disease. And they’re also better yielders and better graders,” Seward said. “And that’s where the research and breeding pays off.”

Agritourism and the community

Seward Farms is the only full-time farm left in Jackson County, but it’s a popular one due to a successful agritourism venture, run by Steve’s wife, Susan, and his sister, Susie Kelley.

Seward Farms draws visitors young and old from Biloxi, Miss., Mobile, Ala., Hattiesburg, Miss., Gulfport, Miss., and Pensacola, Fla. Attractions include various southern crops to touch and feel, pig and duck races, a popular corn maze, corn cob cannons, a pony carousel and plenty of opportunities to interact with goats, sheep, cows and chickens.

The festivities kick off in the fall and last about 10 weeks. “It started out on the educational side, with educational field trips with area schools,” Seward said. “We’re also open to the general public on the weekends.”

Visitors can touch a bale of cotton and see all its various end uses. Other displays allow children to follow the movement of peanuts and potatoes from the farm to the factory.

The Sewards believe farming successfully along the coast is just as much about community involvement as it is managing the farm’s production, which is why the farm is very involved with local schools. “We’re trying to teach the younger children where their food comes from,” Seward said. “If you teach children something today, they will still remember it when they’re in their 20s.”