When one door closes, another opens — so the old adage goes. For Mitchell Farms, when the door of the government peanut program closed in 2002, it opened multiple doors.
They still grow peanuts, but they are no longer beholden to the processors for their market, and they’ve added a broad range of other enterprises, including a very successful agritourism operation, that have brought new profit opportunities.
Dennis and Nelda Mitchell started farming here in the rolling hills of south central Mississippi in 1955, and as the operation has grown, their son, Don, daughter, Beverly, daughter-in-law Jo Lynn, and grandchildren have joined in to keep things rolling.
“From the 1970s through the 1990s, peanuts were the backbone of our operation,” says Don, who looks after most of the farm’s crops.
“We grew them for the processing market. But when the government did away with the quota program, it opened the door to a lot more acres, and prices fell. It just wasn’t a very lucrative enterprise — plus we had the expense of hauling them all the way to a plant at Andalusia, Ala., which further ate into any profit.
“By the time we put $300 per acre in production costs, then paid for trucking the peanuts to the plant, and factored in all the aggravation, we decided we could do as well or better with other crops. Corn, wheat, and soybeans are less demanding than growing peanuts for the commercial market, which requires a lot of management.
“So, we scaled back peanut acres, and increased row crops and vegetables, including you-pick, and then, a few years ago, moved into agritourism. Peanuts went from being the meat of our operation to being something of a sideline as we concentrated on more profitable enterprises.”
Now, says Don, “We sell all the peanuts we grow right here on the farm — 80 percent are sold green, in bulk, for boiling, and we dry about 20 percent for roasting. We grow about equal amounts of Valencias, Virginias, and Jumbos, and we stagger plantings from early April through early July, which lets us harvest from about mid-July until the first hard frost.
“We dig them, shake them, do minimal cleaning, put them in 30-pound bags, and store them in the coolers until they’re picked up.”
There is a big market for green peanuts, he notes, particularly in Louisiana. “We have people come here and take them away by the pickup load. Church groups and other organizations will buy them in bulk to sell for moneymaking projects. The peak season for green peanut sales is late August to Labor Day. Our selling radius is about 250 miles, from south Louisiana to north Mississippi. By selling here at the farm, we can realize a good profit and we don’t have the expense of hauling them.”
Over the 30 years they’ve grown peanuts, Don says, they have averaged about 3,000 pounds per acre dryland.
Altogether, Mitchell Farms has about 1,100 acres in crops — 200 peanuts, 500 corn, 300 wheat that’s double-cropped with no-till soybeans, and 100 in about 20 different kinds of vegetables and fruits.
“I pretty much look after the row crops and some of the vegetables and my father, Dennis, looks after the tomatoes and other vegetables and fruits,” Don explains. “My wife, Jo Lynn, in the last few years has developed an agritourism business that brings thousands of people to the farm each year.
“My sister, Beverly Bakalyar, who lives in Tampa, Fla., comes back for the summer — she’s been doing it for almost 30 years — and looks after the produce sales. She hires a lot of local youngsters to help with shelling butterbeans and other chores, along with some migrant workers.”
A brother, Dale, and his wife, Charlotte, are both registered nurses and have their own farm near Seminary, Miss.
Because the area is hilly and much of it in timber — Mitchell Farms has about 400 acres in pine trees — crop fields tend to be relatively small and scattered.
“We have a lot of different fields that spread over a 10-mile radius from our headquarters,” Don says. “The largest is 120 acres, but the average is probably 40 acres. It takes a lot of equipment movement to get everything done in all those places.”
They average about 50 bushels per acre for wheat, and for corn, “we’re happy with 100 bushels — but we’ve had a good season thus far this year and it’s possible we could hit 140 bushels.” He planted DeKalb and Pioneer varieties March 1 through April 7.
“We have about 150 acres of land that we can irrigate with traveling gun systems, but we’ve been blessed with rains at just the right time this year and, going into July, we had adequate soil moisture.”
It was a different story in 2009, however. “We got rain June 4 and it didn’t rain another drop until July 25, when we got 5 inches in a thunderstorm that took the roof off our barn. Then the rains started in earnest.
“We got planted late with soybeans and they actually benefited from the late rains, but we weren’t able to harvest until late October/early November. We ended up with about a 40-bushel average, which we thought was great, considering all they’d come through.”
This year’s soybeans, Asgrow and Pioneer, were planted May 25 through June 5.
In addition to the row crops, the produce runs the gamut. “We grow peas, butterbeans, and tomatoes — they’re our three main moneymakers — okra, squash, cucumbers, peppers, corn, blackberries, blueberries, peaches, cantaloupes, watermelons, and several others that don’t pop to mind. A lot of our sales, particularly peanuts and watermelons, are to peddlers, who then re-sell them. We also sell a lot of sweet potatoes, but we don’t grow them — we buy them from growers at Vardaman, Miss.
“We have shelling machines for the peas and they’re running pretty much full-time during the season. For the farm, we have six full-time workers, and a lot of seasonal workers as needed. We could sell a lot more peaches; you can’t believe the demand for them, but right now we just aren’t ready to expand that enterprise.
“Blueberries, on the other hand, have been a complete bust for us. We read all the articles about demand for blueberries and potential profits, and we’ve got hundreds of bushes that are bearing well, but we just can’t sell enough to make them pay. The bushes are all loaded with blueberries right now, and most of them won’t be picked. I expect we’ll end up bulldozing them and putting in something else.”
It’s in cases like that when diversification pays, Don says. “If something works and makes money for us, that’s fine. But if we have a failure, such as with blueberries, we can make it up with the other enterprises. It would be easier on the management end not to have so many different things to worry about — from spraying and fertilizing wheat in February until harvesting is done at Thanksgiving, there’s something demanding attention — but we just don’t want to put all our eggs in a few baskets.
“Fall is also when we’re busiest with agritourism — this place will be swarming every weekend with visitors for autumn events and Halloween.”