Peanuts making a comeback in Miss.

Published 12:59 am Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Nearly a century after farmers in the South were persuaded by George Washington Carver and others to cultivate their lands for peanuts to replenish the soil with life-giving nitrogen, the crop is front and center as an alternative crop as farmers look to beef up their bottom lines.

Formerly a blip on the state’s agricultural radar screen, the plant that begins as seeds underground and ends up salted, roasted and sometimes boiled is now garnering attention.

“We did not keep statistics on peanuts in Mississippi until 2006. The acreage began to rise to where we began keeping statistics,” said Thomas Gregory, director of the Mississippi field office of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

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That year, peanuts planted for edible purposes covered 17,000 acres statewide, producing 46.4 million pounds. In 2007, acreage grew to 19,000 and produced 59.4 million pounds. Additional yields have made peanuts profitable, with prices generally negotiated directly between farmers and the industry — this month at 21 cents per pound, or between $420 and $470 per ton.

Michael Howell, a Harrison County based agronomy agent and peanut specialist for the Mississippi State University Extension Service, predicts a continued rise when 2008 statistics are finalized, particularly in areas such as Warren County and counties in north Mississippi where the crop had been a rarity.

“Four or five years ago, there wasn’t a peanut grown up there,” Howell said of areas east of Interstate 55 and north of U.S. Highway 82. “There will be a little over 8,000 acres this year.”

County-specific totals on peanut acreage and production are not yet maintained by the USDA’s statistical arm. However, regional figures show areas in south and coastal Mississippi are most prolific. Howell credits the soil type.

“We need to keep peanuts in sandy-type soils,” Howell said.

Generally, such loamy soils are more favorable for planting peanuts than the finer-grained soils of west central Mississippi, which can stick to peanuts at harvest when wet.

“It’s next to impossible to get it off the peanuts,” Howell said.

Historically, peanuts have been grown in the United States in a six-state region in the Southeast and Mid-Atlanic States, with Georgia the most prolific producer in the area. Mississippi, though lagging behind key peanut-producing states, is seeing benefits from changes at the federal level earlier this decade.

In 2002, the year peanuts were added to the list of commodities, including cotton and corn, eligible for a market-rate loan program detailed in that year’s Farm Bill that ended eligibility quotas, only five or six farmers tended peanut fields that covered about 4,000 acres, Howell said.

“In 2008, there were 50 or more individual growers on 21,000 acres,” Howell said.

Lonnie Fortner, president of the Mississippi Peanut Producers Association formed in 2005, manages peanut farms on about 700 of those acres, primarily in Warren and Claiborne counties. He credits a perfect combination of factors including biology, federal support changes and the economy.

“It’s a rare commodity for Mississippi farmers, but it’s just starting to expand,” Fortner said. “Peanuts make their own nitrogen. Anybody can grow peanuts, so you don’t have to own peanut quota.”

Fertilizer price spikes parallel with fuel prices hurt farming overall, Fortner said, but less so with the less fertilizer-dependent peanut.

“I’m scared to track those prices,” Fortner said, referencing the economic aspect of farming. “It’s not just the good Lord sending a bucketful of rain at the right time.”