Search for Drought-Tolerant Peanuts Shows Promise

7/19/2014 7:00 AM
By Linda McNatt Va./N.C. Correspondent

SUFFOLK, Va. — Maria Balota, a professor of pathology, physiology and weed science at the Tidewater Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Suffolk, Va., believes that a demon drought could be just around the next corner.

For the last couple of years, and so far this year, crops in the fields of southeastern Virginia have grown full and lush thanks to adequate rainfall in the region. Some Virginia crops have even set yield records in the past couple of years, but who knows how long that will be the case.

"We now know that weather extremes are to be expected under this changing climate, and we want to be prepared for when rains will stop," she said, in a recent article published in the Virginia Peanut Growers Association's Peanut News.

Balota and her associates at the agricultural center have been experimenting the last two summers with growing peanuts under three different watering circumstances: well water, intermediate water stress and severe water stress. They are trying to identify peanut varieties that will grow and produce well under drought conditions.

Adequate rainfall is a problem worldwide and countries such as China and India are searching for drought solutions as hard as the U.S. China is the global leader in peanut production, followed by India. The U.S. ranks third, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Peanuts are a global commodity, with the U.S. accounting for less than 20 percent of total production, according to federal statistics. The latest trend in peanuts is increasing the level of oleic acid, which rivals olive oil in cardiovascular benefits.

The Tidewater AREC is the base location for the Virginia-North Carolina peanut variety and quality evaluation program, a multistate program that evaluates new cultivars of Virginia market-type peanuts for agronomic production, processing and food chemistry characteristics. The program involves production test sites in Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, which constitute the principle region for production of Virginia market-type peanuts.

Balota heads the program that includes collaboration with scientists from Virginia Tech, North Carolina State, Clemson, Tidewater AREC, graduate students, cooperating growers and technical staff, with funding support from commodity board, industry and other competitive grants. The drought experimentation is funded by the Virginia Peanut Growers Association and the National Peanut Board.

In addition, the program is developing new research in crop physiology, with emphasis on heat and cold tolerance as well as drought stress tolerance.

The natural rainfall at the agricultural center in Suffolk is controlled with plastic covers that are put over the peanut plants to shelter them, and underneath irrigation is used. Balota said the plastic is pulled away from the plants by tractors when the sun shines.

"After the data was analyzed, we could indeed see that our water regimes produced comparable yields with state and regional averages in years with extreme precipitation," she said.

The well and intermediate water stress regimes produced together an average of 4,972 pounds an acre, similar to the record yields of 2012 and 2013, which were very rainy years. The water-stressed production was only 2,281 pounds per acre, more like the record drought year of 2010.

A lot of universities nationwide are doing drought research on peanuts, said Dell Cotton, executive secretary of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association. Peanuts, however, have a reputation for being a fairly drought-tolerant crop.

The crops actually need extra moisture only three times during the growing season, Cotton said.

"Peanuts don't want a lot of rain in the spring, when they're just beginning to grow," he said. "They only need it at certain times, when they're blooming and when they are setting pegs down."

The pegs — or long strings that reach into the soil — eventually produce the actual nuts of the legumes.

That's why a lot of farmers don't always worry about lack of rain on peanuts. But Cotton and others can still remember the devastating drought of 2010, when the fields of peanuts in Virginia and North Carolina failed to produce anything close to their normal yields.

Balota is satisfied with her research so far. She said she feels the researchers are getting close to satisfying the drought concerns many farmers have had for years.

"We are seeing some success already," she said. "We have crossed two breeding lines with multiple crosses. We're now developing that data, and we would eventually like to identify the molecular markers."

Two varieties of peanuts are showing promise, according to Balota. The N05006 and SP06-07, which is from the North Carolina State University breeding program, seem to have better tolerance to severe drought than all of the other cultivars and lines studied.

The team has also observed that Bailey, Georgia 06 and Sugg have good tolerance to intermediate water stress. Sugg appears to have improved tolerance to the severe water stress as well, Balota said.

"We certainly do not like to see drought, but we do like to have adequate tools to evaluate its effects on peanuts," she said, in the Peanut Grower's article. "We'll continue our work through 2014."

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