Feature

Peanuts prove profitable for growers

If cotton is king, then the peanut is prince for a growing number of farmers in the Arkansas Delta and the Missouri Bootheel.

Once relegated mostly to southern states such as Georgia, where growers produce nearly half of the U.S. peanut crop, the popular legume has recently become an important cash crop on farms farther north. In fact, a record 37,000 acres of peanuts were planted in Arkansas in 2020, and 10,000 acres were grown in Missouri—enough to earn status as a primary peanut-producing state by the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. Arkansas earned that designation in 2014.

“We’ve really seen peanut production explode in our area during the past several years,” said James Stricklin, MFA agronomy key account manager who covers several counties in southeast Missouri and northeast Arkansas. “More and more farmers are including at least a small acreage in their crop mix, especially in rotation with cotton.”

Suitable soil, abundant irrigation and proximity to major peanut buyers have all contributed to the crop’s return to power in the region. Previ­ously, peanuts had been grown here for generations, but sharply declined and then disappeared by the early 1980s because growing conditions were considered more reliable farther south. About a decade ago, drought in peanut-producing states such as Texas, Georgia and Oklahoma forced peanut companies to find other places to grow. In 2010, peanuts were reintroduced in Arkansas, and acreage has been steadi­ly increasing ever since.

Further boosting the popularity of peanuts among Delta growers were declining cotton prices, which reached record highs in 2011 and then dropped dramatically over the next several years. Peanuts offered better promise of profitability, even with added expense of purchasing dedicated equipment.

“When they first came to our area, everybody kind of thought, ‘Man, that’s crazy. Peanuts, here?’” said Caleb Miller, who farms with his father, Gordon, and younger brother, Connor, near Paragould, Ark. “I didn’t think we had the right soil type or climate. But they started getting our attention when we saw a decline in profits from pretty much every other commodity. We had to diversify and try something we could actually make money on.”

Area offers prime production

Turns out that the Millers and neighboring farmers do, indeed, have suitable conditions for peanut production. Peanuts develop best in loose, sandy soil and thrive under irrigation—both of which are prev­alent in northeast Arkansas and the Missouri Bootheel. The legume is a 160- to 180-day crop, which usually isn’t a problem in the region.

Caleb, 27, who began farming full time after graduating from Arkansas State University in 2014, planted his first peanut crop in 2016, starting with 300 acres. Five seasons later, the Millers now grow 800 acres of peanuts among their 7,000 acres of row crops, most of which is cotton. The relatively small percentage of peanuts in the overall production belies their significance, Caleb said. For the past few years, peanut yields on the Miller farm have averaged 2.7 to 3.2 tons per acre. In mid-January, the USDA reported average peanut prices were nearly $425 per ton.

“It may not be as many acres, but peanuts are second on our priority list behind cotton,” he said. “I wish we’d done it sooner. Not only are they profitable, but they are also really good for rotating cotton and corn. It’s not rare at all to see 100 to 200 pounds more lint yield in cotton after a peanut crop.”

The bump in yield can be attributed to several factors, he said. As a legume, peanuts have the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil, adding fertility that will benefit the following crop. For cot­ton, nitrogen is the element required most often and in larger amounts than other plant nutrients.

In addition, peanuts help combat nematodes that feed on the roots of cotton plants. Peanuts don’t host these pesky parasites, so using the legume crop in rotation with cotton helps naturally lower nematode numbers in the field.

Cooperative opens opportunities

Despite such advantages, the region’s growth in peanut acre­age has been limited by lack of marketing infrastructure. Until recently, producers had a couple of local buying points but no nearby processors. The peanuts had to be shipped to shelling facilities hundreds of miles away in southeast Georgia or west Texas before coming right back to the peanut butter and candy bar plants that operate near where the crops had been grown in the first place.

That all changed in 2019 when Delta Peanut, a farmer-owned cooperative, was formed and began building a warehousing and shelling operation in Jonesboro, Ark. The $70 million facility opened in August 2020 and can handle nearly 200,000 tons of pea­nuts when running at maximum capacity.

The Millers are founding mem­bers of Delta Peanut, which is owned by some 70 farm families from Missouri, Arkansas and Loui­siana. Caleb says he believes bring­ing the production chain closer to the region’s growers will lead to even more expansion of the crop. The Smuck­ers-Jif peanut butter plant in Memphis, Tenn., the Skippy peanut butter plant in Little Rock, Ark., and the Planters peanut plant in Fort Smith, Ark., are all within easy distance of the shelling operation.

“It’s the first shelling plant in Arkansas and the closest for a lot of growers,” Caleb said. “It’s a big risk, but I have full faith that everything’s going to work out.”

Getting the shelling plant fully op­erational hasn’t been without growing pains, Caleb said, but neither has peanut production itself. The crop is extremely sensitive to weather, and it often turns cold in the area during harvest, which can hurt yields. If the inverted plants are sub­jected to rain, snow or ice, the peanuts can be damaged.

Exacerbating this concern is slow nature of harvest, which is a two-step process. First, an implement called an inverter lifts the peanuts from the soil, elevates the vines, turns them over and forms windrows, exposing the pods to the air for curing. When the inverted peanuts have dried to a moisture content of 18% to 24%, usually five to seven days after digging, a peanut combine separates the pods from the vines, discarding the plant material to the field and delivering the peanuts to an overhead basket.

The peanuts are conveyed into a wagon, which, when full, dumps the peanuts into a waiting tractor trailer bound for Delta Peanut’s plant, about 30 minutes away. There, the peanuts are sized, graded and shelled before being shipped to buyers.

“The peanuts we grow are a low-oleic variety, the type they use for peanut butter,” Caleb said. “The high-oleic peanuts grown in this area usually go to Mars for Peanut M&Ms and Snickers candy bars. That type of peanut has a longer shelf life.”

When they got into peanuts, the Millers had to invest in special harvesting equipment, which is unique to the crop, but planting is done with the same planter used for cotton. Caleb says he uses 38-inch rows for both crops. Peanuts are planted at the end of April or first of May, similar to cotton. 

And like harvest, peanut planting also takes place at a pains­taking pace.

“It’s a large seed, so you have to go slow or you’ll split them,” he explained. “And you don’t get many acres to a fill-up.”

Take heed of weeds, diseases

Besides speed, weeds also make peanut production challenging. Peanuts are a non-GMO crop, which limits over-the-top her­bicide options. The solution, Caleb said, is starting clean and using overlapping residuals. He also keeps a crew on standby to hand-rogue any escapes.

“Pigweed is tough in this area, and we’re very limited on what chemicals we can use,” Caleb said. “It’s critical to keep our peanuts clean because it’s getting harder and harder every year to keep our cotton clean. If you try to save a little money on chemicals and weeds go to seed, then it’s going to make it more difficult when you rotate to cotton.”

Properly timed fungicides are also key to a successful peanut crop, he adds. Caleb says he typically applies fungicides at 70, 90 and 110 days after planting to protect the crop from po­tentially devastating diseases such as leaf spot and white mold.

After harvest, Caleb said he does some light tillage and then drills a cover crop behind the peanuts, typically a mix of cereal rye, black oats and vetch. He’ll plant cotton into the standing green cover in the spring.

While adding peanuts to a row-crop operation can bring new sources of revenue, MFA agronomists warn it can also introduce new insects and diseases that weren’t problems before. Care­ful management and chemical stewardship are paramount to mitigating problems that could hinder future production.

“After the first year of peanut production, disease pressure will build, and the more you grow, the worse it will get,” said Jesse Surface, MFA southeast district agronomist. “Resistance can also become an issue. Growers need to be sure they use full rates of fungicides with multiple modes of action and be vigilant with their crop rotations.”

The Millers heed that advice, planting one peanut crop for every two cotton crops, and Caleb said he’s also considering adding corn into that rotation. It’s important to protect the integrity of the crop, the young producer said, because he and his family intend for pea­nuts to maintain a significant pres­ence in their production portfolio.

“Peanuts just make sense for us,” Caleb said. “If you look at it from an ecological side, you’re doing nothing but helping the soil. But also, it’s financial. You’ve got to do something to keep your operation profitable. As long as people stay disciplined in their crop rotation and fungicide applications, I think peanuts are here to stay.”

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Yoder family honored for conservation, advocacy efforts

Joshlin and Addie Yoder of Leonard, Mo., are winners of the 2020 Missouri Leopold Conservation Award, which honors Missouri farmers’ achievement in voluntary stewardship and natural resources management.

The Yoders, who raise row crops, hay and beef cattle on 1,100 acres in Shelby County, are the fourth Missouri farm family to receive this prestigious award. Missouri Farmers Care, a coalition of agricultural organizations that includes MFA Incorporated, partnered with the Sand County Foundation to bring the Leopold award to the Show-Me State for the first time in 2017.

“The Yoder family’s commitment to understanding the importance of soil health is a testament to their success,” said Scott Edwards, NRCS state conservationist for Missouri. “Taking steps to implement conservation practices and supporting moni­toring efforts contribute to improved natural resource benefits and make this farm an excellent example of sustainable agriculture.”

The Sand County Foundation created this award in honor of renowned con­servationist Aldo Leopold to inspire American landowners and recognize excep­tional farmers, ranchers and foresters. Leopold’s 1949 collection of essays, “A Sand County Almanac,” is one of the most influential books about the environment ever written. The foundation now supports and promotes conservation on working lands across the U.S. and presents the Leopold award in 21 states.

In Missouri, the award is presented annually by Sand County Foundation, Missouri Farmers Care, Missouri Soybean Merchandising Council and USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. The Yoders were honored with a $10,000 award and commemorative crystal trophy Jan. 9 at the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association convention. Other Missouri Leopold finalists this year were Cope Grass Farms of Truxton, Tim and Rhonda Luther of Lawson, Oetting Homestead Farms of Con­cordia and Peter Rost Jr. of New Madrid.

Conservation-minded practices have been a priority for the Yoders since they returned to the family farm in 2008 and began expanding their operation. Today, they pool labor and equipment with Joshlin’s parents, Merlin and Twilah, and brother, Jordan and his wife, Becky, although all three families manage their own farms.

The Yoders use minimum tillage or no-till methods to plant corn and soybeans, which helps reduce soil erosion and com­paction. Tile and terrace systems help protect some of the most vulnerable areas, while grass field borders and buffer strips curb erosion and take some of the lowest-quality ground out of pro­duction. Cover crops provide better weed control and improve soil health and water quality. The impact is measured through automated water monitoring stations that collect rain runoff from fields with and without cover crops.

“From the moment we purchased our farm, we knew it wasn’t a short-term thing. This was going to be a long-term in­vestment,” Joshlin said. “We wanted to make this a lifestyle and something we could continue to do as long as we desired. We knew that meant maintaining the natural resource we had—the soil—so that it can be productive for generations to come.”

Precision agriculture technology helps the Yoders make every acre as productive as possible. Joshlin emphasized that his family incorporates the 4Rs concept on their farm, maximizing nutrient efficiency and minimizing losses by placing the right source and the right rate, at the right time and in the right place.

“We are constantly looking to challenge traditional ways of farming and implementing new practices to reach our goals of building soil health, improving production efficiency, pro­tecting water quality and developing habitat for wildlife,” Joshlin said in the family’s Leopold application. “We want to run a farming operation that is sustainable for the future.”

With those goals in mind, the Yoders began participating in the Soil Health Partnership (SHP) four years ago, joining some 120 Midwest growers in this farmer-led research program. The SHP gathers on-farm data to evaluate the impacts of conserva­tion practices such as cover crops on the soil, the environment and the farmer’s bottom line.

“The results will help guide my decisions as well as give area farmers confidence that growing cover crops is not only envi­ronmentally beneficial but also economically beneficial,” Joshlin said. “I believe that once a person finds the best mixes and management practices for their operation, using cover crops on 100% of the acres will not only be possible but desired.”

He and Addie are also active within the industry, participating in leadership events and agricultural advocacy. Addie volunteers with CommonGround, a group of farm women who help bridge the gap between agriculture and consumers. She also shares the family’s farm story through public speaking, podcasts, radio and social media, emphasizing her Facebook and Instagram pages. She makes regular posts about what is happening on the farm to create interaction with followers. She also serves as an ambassa­dor for the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance and took part in the 2019 Greater Missouri Leadership Challenge.

“Addie and I are continually looking for ways to share our sto­ry with others,” Joshlin said. “Sometimes it has led to difficult discussions and made us evaluate how we present information to others. It is also important to promote the conservation prac­tices we use on our farm. We have a passion to influence others, both in and outside of agriculture, in a positive way.”

For more information on the Leopold Award, visit www.leopoldconservationaward.org.

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Shield Plus is standard practice on Ronnie Heaton's cattle operation

Cattleman Ronnie Heaton tries to do things right on his farm outside of Vandalia, Mo. His pastures are well managed, and his cows are rotated on schedule. His facilities are set up and maintained to ensure safety when handling the cattle. And he takes a proactive approach to cow health and nutrition.

That approach includes giving MFA Shield Plus to newborn calves within their first hours of life. It’s been standard practice on the Heaton farm ever since MFA Livestock Key Account Manager Wendy Flatt Beard gave the cattleman a few samples of the proprietary product to try last year.

“We always work the calves the day they’re born,” Heaton said. “Since we already have the calf down to ear tag it, I just carry the bottle of Shield Plus in my pocket and give them a squirt of it before I let them up. We’ve had nothing but good experiences with it.”

Developed to be administered to newborn or stressed an­imals, Shield Plus comes in liquid or paste forms. It’s one of the most popular products in MFA’s Shield Technology lineup, which is formulated for multiple species. The concentrated colostrum extract, synbiotics, botanical extracts, fatty acids and vitamins in Shield Plus help promote animal health and immu­nity from the get-go. In addition, freeze-dried egg antibodies help combat scours, one of the most serious problems that plague newborn calves.

Heaton raises 80 Hereford-Angus cow/calf pairs. Though most of the spring calving on his farm happens in mid-March, later than on many cattle operations, Beard still refers to the time of year as “sprinter”—a combination of spring and winter. She generally helps Heaton work his cattle during this in-between season.

“It’s just hard on calves,” Beard said. “Last year, it was still cold and wet, and that’s pretty much the norm now. You can tell those baby calves just need a little extra something.”

It’s a difference you can see, Heaton ac­knowledged, noting specifically the calves’ temperament and energy levels after admin­istering Shield Plus.

“I don’t know how to explain it,” he said. “But within the first day or few hours— basically as soon as we can get our hands on it—that calf is going to get a dose of Shield.”

Heaton and his wife, Joyce, reside and raise cattle on land that was once her father’s farm. Much of their pasture ground lies adjacent to their home or is rented from neighbors nearby. An old two-story farmhouse that sits within eyesight just down the road marks Heaton’s own roots.

“My great-granddad built that house in 1894,” Heaton said. “I was raised about three miles from here. Our family has been around this area for about 150 years.”

In 1871, Heaton’s great-grandfather moved to this area from Marion County, Ill.

“If memory serves me right, he bought the farm for $10 an acre,” Heaton said. “People have asked me why he didn’t buy up on the prairie between Vandalia and Farber. Well, that area was mostly swamp back then—buffalo grass and rattlesnakes and not much timber to actually use to build a house.”

Heaton started farming himself at age 24 after returning from the Vietnam War in 1973. Rows of corn and soybeans once stood where his cattle now graze.

“When I got out of the service, I went to work at the brick plant in Vandalia and rented this place from my father-in-law to row-crop,” Heaton said. “I was young and eager and had a plan.”

In addition to row-cropping, he invested in hogs. In 1978, Heaton said he made more money than he’d ever dreamed he would make in one year, but in 1979, the bottom fell out when a localized drought hit the area.

“That was kind of the beginning of the end for my farming,” Heaton said. “There were three droughts in five years, and when interest rates went to 18%, there was no way.”

Like many others, Heaton went to work off the farm in 1983.

“I was fortunate enough to get hired on to the second shift at General Motors in Wentzville,” Heaton said. “I worked there and farmed part time. My wife ran a small insurance agency, and we slowly built our way back up.”

His goal was always to return to cattle production, which Heaton describes as his “first love.”

“My dad always farmed,” he said. “When I was 9 years old, our milk cow had a calf—it was a little half-Jersey, half-Angus calf. When it was small, it had something wrong with it, and my dad told me if I could save that calf, I could have it. What I remember most is that every night before I went to bed, my mom or dad would mix up a bottle of milk with some Terramy­cin in it, and I would go to the barn to give the calf a bottle.”

The calf lived, and Heaton kept it.

As a high school freshman, he raised a show calf. When he sold it, however, others convinced him pigs would be more profitable. Still, like most teenagers, Heaton would doodle on the edges of his notebooks in class. His doodles, though, were diagrams of feedlots and cattle pastures.

When Heaton retired from General Motors, he took the few cattle he already had and decided to grow the herd. He built fences and converted crop fields into pastures. The Heatons’ son, Jamie, an elevator supervisor at MFA Agri Services in Van­dalia, also bought into the operation.

“My son and I continually talk about how we can tweak our program a little more,” Heaton said. “We try to buy the right genetics and save back our own heifers. All of our cattle are vaccinated and documented through the Health Track program. We’re always learning, and there’s always room for improvement, but we’ve been farming for enough years now that we’re probably doing more culling than anything—taking off the bottom end rather than adding to the top.”

That isn’t to say they don’t have challenges, Heaton said. Like most farmers, weather and prices are regular frustrations. One of their goals is to transition the operation completely to a fall-calving cycle to avoid those “sprinter” months, as Beard de­scribed it. Currently, the herd’s calving seasons are split roughly 50/50 between spring and fall, and Heaton estimates the change­over will take two years.

Even when that happens, Heaton insisted, the use of Shield Plus will continue to be a proactive protocol for all the farm’s calves.

“Out of 74 calves this year, we haven’t had any respiratory or intestinal issues,” Heaton said. “I told Wendy the other day, I don’t know what’s in it. All I know is it works, and I’m going to use it.”

For more information on Shield Plus or other Shield Tech­nology products, contact your local MFA Agri Services or visit online at mfa-inc.com/Products/Feed/Shield.

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