After a year that, for many Arkansas crops, could best be described as “embattled,” the state’s peanut harvest is coming to its final glory. Slowly.
“Oh, it’s about like watching paint dry,” laughed Craighead County Cooperative Extension Service staff chair Branon Thiesse. “The harvest is moving along as fast as it can — at about one-and-a-half miles an hour.”
Unlike most row crops in Arkansas, harvesting peanuts is a multi-step process, requiring first to be dug from the ground, then allowed to dry, and finally collected with a combine.
“The combine that most people use is one that’s pulled by a tractor,” Thiesse said. “The combine moves slowly, because in addition to the peanuts and the tops that are still connected to them, there’s also clods of dirt and things like that. The combine has to go real slow, so they can be separated out.”
Peanuts, something of a specialty crop in Arkansas, gradually began reasserting themselves as an economically viable option over the past five years, as some Delta growers situated on sandy soils incrementally shifted acreage away from cotton. A June 30 acreage report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service estimated that Arkansas growers planted 30,000 acres of peanuts in 2017, a 6,000-acre increase over 2016.
Between Oct. 8 and Oct. 15, Arkansas growers leaped from having harvested only about 20 percent of that acreage to having harvested nearly half of it, according to the USDA. Travis Faske, Extension plant pathologist and acting peanut agronomist for the University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture, said the fact that peanuts can be unearthed at a much faster rate than they can be thrashed often leads to a production bottleneck.
Beyond the technical challenges of harvesting the crop, Faske said the widespread use of pivot irrigation in peanuts has essentially spared growers possible fallout from an exceedingly dry September.
“Peanuts aren’t terminated by cutting off the water, like we do with corn, soybeans and cotton,” Faske said. “Peanuts are terminated by digging. We don’t want them to get dry, but irrigation typically makes it a non-issue. We don’t have many dryland peanut fields in the state, if any.”
Most peanuts are grown and sold on contract, which Faske said helps to somewhat insulate growers from market fluctuations. Contract prices in 2017 are averaging over $500 a ton, he said.
“The guys who are doing peanuts and cotton are smiling,” Faske said. “They’re having a good year, overall. Peanuts are definitely profitable again for the 2017 season.”