Virginia Peanuts Down But Not Out After Difficult Decade

10/6/2012 7:00 AM
By Andrew Jenner Virginia Correspondent

Market Instability an Ongoing Challenge for State’s Famous Crop

DOSWELL, Va. — Billy Bain's black business card lists a variety of commodities he raises on his 3,500-acre farm in Dinwiddie and Sussex counties in southern Virginia: cotton, corn, peanuts, hay, soybeans and cattle.

But the card's lone graphic — a large, golden, in-shell peanut — shows which one he holds most dear.

"Peanuts were always the mainstay of the farm," said Bain, stationed on Monday afternoon at a Virginia Peanut Growers Association exhibit booth at the Virginia State Fair.

Bain, who was named the 2009 Virginia Farmer of the Year, is a lifelong peanut farmer and has held leadership positions in numerous state and national commodity groups.

Along with recently harvested peanut vines and various brochures about the crop's health benefits and standing within the realm of Virginia agriculture, Bain's enthusiasm for peanut outreach and advocacy was on display at the commodity booth.

You'd be amazed how many people think the peanuts grow above ground like beans, Bain said.

When a group of women stopped by to check out the clumps of vines, he held them up to demonstrate how the "nuts" — actually legumes, rather than nuts in the strictest botanical sense — grow underground, attached to the plant by "pegs" that branch off from the main stem. The women raised their eyebrows, remarking as they wandered off, that they’d learned something.

This sort of outreach is important, even for a well-established and popular product like Virginia peanuts, famous for their size and flavor, and in high demand as a gourmet snack.

"You have to continually remind people to eat peanuts," said Dell Cotton, executive director of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association, who works to promote the state's peanuts and find new markets on behalf of its growers.

That task is as important as ever, as the peanut industry — once one of Virginia's top commodities — has faced a series of obstacles over the past decade.

As part of the 2002 Farm Bill, the old peanut quota system that was intended to control supply was replaced by a new system that set a price floor for the commodity but lifted the quotas and opened the market to any producers. As production increased sharply in other areas of the country, Virginia's peanut acreage fell from about 75,000 acres to around 20,000 acres.

With the state's peanut production concentrated in just nine counties in its southeastern corner with ideal soils and climate, this decline had a dramatic effect on the local economy, Cotton said, with many growers selling their equipment and leaving the industry altogether.

"It's been tough," said Bain, adding that, as in other farm industries, input costs have risen significantly.

Recent droughts have also taken their toll, as have concerns about peanut allergies that have diminished or ended orders from large customers like airlines.

With the quota system gone, Cotton said, the peanut market over the past 10 years has experienced both price and production fluctuations that make it difficult for farmers to plan future crops. In 2011, for example, high cotton prices meant many growers across the country planted more cotton and fewer peanuts. Supply was further reduced by a drought in Texas, and peanut prices rose accordingly.

This year, Georgia peanut growers increased their planted acreage by 50 percent, Cotton continued, and conditions have been such that record yields are expected. That means there are going to be a lot of peanuts harvested soon, and the price should yo-yo back down again.

"It's difficult on the farmer," Cotton said.

But Bain's acreage has been creeping up lately, from 50 just after the quota system was abolished, to 220 this year, and he hopes to see that trend continue. Difficult doesn't mean impossible.

Any kind of farming is difficult, Bain said, smiling, sitting, waiting for the next opportunity to tell a fair visitor more about the crop he loves most.

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