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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