Crunch Time

Tough times for American farmers of organic peanuts.

October 18, 2013

Maybe it’s just a southern thang, but I can’t pass up a roadside vendor of boiled peanuts. And all my life I have enjoyed putting a healthy handful of unsalted peanuts in my colas. Call it a country boy’s cocktail: a perfect pick-me-up combo of flavored fizzy sugar water and protein-packed peanuts.

Instead of being produced on trees, bushes, or vines, the way a sane person would expect, peanuts develop underground. Unlike true nuts, peanuts (Arachis hypogaea, also known as pinders, goober peas, ground peas, and ground nuts) are unusual members of the legume family, with the same pea- and beanlike ability to “fix” nitrogen from the air on root nodules (great for adding back to the garden soil or compost). Sturdy “pegs” snake out of the yellow flowers and into the soil, where the rough, seed-filled pods are formed (hypogaea means “under the earth”).

Peanut seeds are among the world’s wonders for healthful goodness. Peanuts contain more than 75 percent good unsaturated fat and more antioxidants than nearly any other more highly touted fruit or vegetable, and—vegetarians and vegans, rejoice!—higher amounts of vegetable protein than any true nut.

Although more than 3 million Americans are allergic to peanuts, the rest of us eat a lot of them. Forget the peanut oil, the snacks, and flavorful ingredients in our favorite dishes; last year, Americans spent almost $800 million on peanut butter alone. Even the hulls have value, finding use in products that range from wallboard to cat litter, fireplace logs, cosmetics, mulch, and cattle feed.

A bit of history: From their origins in ancient Peru, peanuts were spread by Portuguese traders to Africa, India, and China, where they quickly became staples before making their way to North America from Africa. Still, they took a couple of centuries to catch on as a food source in the United States.

In 1860, yearly peanut production in the United States amounted to roughly 150,000 bushels. During lean Civil War times, boiled peanuts, called goober peas, were used as an emergency ration by grateful soldiers. By 1895, when 8 million bushels were grown, mechanized planting and harvesting made peanuts easier to produce, and they began showing up as snack food in pubs, sports stadiums, circuses, and other “peanut galleries.”

George Washington Carver, the celebrated researcher of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute, championed peanuts in the early 20th century as an alternative crop for land depleted by cotton cultivation. He promoted more than 300 uses for the soil-improving legume, including industrial products, foods, and cosmetics.

Wartime shortages of vegetable oil and the growing popularity of roasted peanuts and peanut candies further increased demand for peanuts, and Elvis Presley’s grilled peanut-butter-and-banana sandwiches clinched their place in popular culture. Nowadays, more peanuts are eaten in the United States than walnuts, almonds, and hazelnuts combined.

Navigating a Difficult Market

American farmers produce nearly all the peanuts we eat in the United States. Patrick Archer, president of the American Peanut Council, says there isn’t a lot of foreign competition in our market. Though India and China together account for more than half of the world’s production, about half of it is processed for cooking oil. Around 87 percent of U.S.-grown peanuts are processed for food, Archer says, with the remainder (usually peanuts of inferior quality) turned into peanut oil.

But hold on to your bread slices, peanut lovers. Organic peanut products may be scarce for the foreseeable future. Because of bad harvests in 2011 and difficulties in processing, the price for the raw beans is expected to go sky high—nearly triple what it was just a year ago—with more supply shortages predicted.

Malcolm Broome, executive director of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association, explains that when the USDA dropped its strictly allotted acreage quotas, a lot of small farmers went out of business. Larger growers have taken up the slack, but few of them grow organically, because of the extra labor involved in keeping equipment clean and segregating organic products from nonorganic products. Small-scale farmers are having a hard time competing, even with higher prices for their product.

Jimmie Shearer, president of Sunland, a New Mexico–based shelling and marketing firm handling organic peanuts, emphasizes that not only was overall peanut production down in 2011, but it doesn’t look good in the short run for organic peanuts. “Southwestern farmers are being pushed to the limit with heat, drought, water shortages, and the lure of higher prices for cotton and other traditional crops,” says Shearer. “We can’t get the organics we want. Not enough is available, even from overseas.”

Jimmy Wedel, from Muleshoe, Texas, agrees, saying that his farm is in a situation where water is limited, so he has to choose his crops carefully. “All my peanuts are organic, but because of the serious drought, and higher prices for other organic and conventional crops, I will have to reduce my peanut planting in 2012.”

This is a real problem, Shearer points out, noting the 3-year process for certifying fields as organic. “Even if they started again now, it would take at least 3 years to get recertified as nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future.”

Trouble on the Horizon

To compound the dilemma, it is difficult to have organic peanuts certified for food on a large scale without possible contamination from shelling and other processing facilities. Jimmy Hayes, owner of Healthy Hollow farm near Savannah, Georgia, says that though researchers are finding ways to make light tilling and cover crops more efficient for organic growers, the biggest hurdle to growing food-grade organic peanuts profitably in the Southeast is the lack of a certified-organic sheller. Without that, he explains, he can’t claim his crop is certified organic; he can claim only that it is organically grown. “Actually, I’m making more profit selling my excess to an organic dairy as cattle feed,” Hayes says.

The USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service estimates that at current global levels of consumption, the amount of peanut oil used is 99 percent of the amount produced. But because food oils are increasingly being diverted to industrial and bio-energy uses, there is a real concern that the supply of all food-grade vegetable oils, including corn and peanut, will be sharply reduced in just a few years.

Research is being blindsided, as well. The National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Georgia, has experienced cuts in federal funding, and as a result it is seeing a reduction in research positions and a significant portion of its work halted.

However, the International Peanut Genome Initiative, a collaborative effort looking for improved quality, production, nutrition, and pest and disease resistance, is currently studying the peanut genome structure—the arrangement of genetic information in peanut cells. And, as anyone following agricultural-production issues knows, genomic research often leads to genetic engineering.

All this kinda makes you want to stock up, or try growing your own, eh? Luckily, growing peanuts is fun and easy anywhere you have at least 4 months (or better, 5) of warm weather. Peanuts put us in touch with our agricultural roots while helping to stretch a food budget like nothing else on—or under—the earth.

Originally published in Organic Gardening Magazine, April/May 2012

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