Visiting peanut farms in the American South
It’s not every day you get to meet someone who actually grows the food you eat.
As I set out to Southeastern North Carolina with BASF Innovation Specialist Brandon Doggett, that was exactly my goal. First, I have a confession: I love peanuts in every possible form. Shelled, roasted, salted, in sauces, in mixes - but above all as peanut butter. It’s difficult to quantify exactly how much peanut butter I consume. Let’s just say that a significant percentage of my meals, calories and nutrients over the past 20 years has come directly from the work of American peanut farmers.
And suddenly, here we are, standing in the midst of a peanut field with North Carolina grower Mike McPherson. A peanut-enriched field of dreams. Mike has been growing Virgina-type peanuts since 1989. These are the larger, in-shell peanuts otherwise known as “ballpark peanuts”, because they are found and enjoyed at American baseball stadiums. For Mike, it was nearly 25 years ago when he and his brother decided to try and grow some peanuts. I’m struck by the challenge of venturing into a completely new crop. Isn’t it like switching careers? I asked Mike what that meant for him and his brother at the time, particularly with a crop that isn’t one of the classical commodities.
“Well, we went to the grower meetings, talked with our extension agent, tried to learn everything we possibly could,” he says. “That first year was difficult, but it just so happened that there was also peanut shortage. We managed to achieve an average yield of 4300 pounds per acre (approx. 4817 kg per hectare), which was really good, and we have been growing peanuts ever since.”
That’s one thing I’ve learned from Innovation Specialist Brandon. Growers in the American South have to consistently adapt and plan, plan and adapt. “The temperate coastal climate allows growers to work in their fields virtually year-round,” he tells me. “That’s great for production. But of course that also means that weeds, diseases and insects never stop working either. What the winter freeze generally kills off in the Northern climates, here in the South keeps right on growing.”
All that change keeps Dan Ward, a peanut grower from Bladen County, North Carolina, busy throughout the year. And that’s just the farming part. In addition to his family and community work, Dan serves on the U.S. National Peanut Board and also conducts some on-farm variety research. Brandon and I meet Dan at one of his research fields, where he’s growing foundation seed for a relatively new variety, called Sullivan peanuts. Originally developed by North Carolina State University, the Sullivan variety is high oleic (contains more monounsaturated fats) and therefore provides more value to the processors.
So far, the results look very promising. “It takes so much care and work to develop these new varieties,” he explains. “We have to ensure that the seeds for this new type remain separate from the others, particularly at planting, harvest and storage. That’s the reason for this little three-row swath we’re standing in, so that everyone knows which is which and, at the end of the day, we can ensure that everyone benefits.”
My brain is overflowing with peanutty tidbits and facts. I try to boil it down for both Dan and Mike: What is one thing that the world should know about peanuts? Dan pauses and then takes a deep breath, ready to make his closing statement. “Peanuts are packed with healthy nutrients and vitamins including protein. That’s especially true for people who suffer from malnutrition. Even if the human body is severely malnourished, peanuts or peanut paste is one of the first things it can digest and process immediately. Peanuts can truly feed the world.” Mike is more direct, “The world should all just eat more peanuts. They’re that good.” Agreed. Then again, I didn’t need much convincing.