Six years ago, fewer than 4,000 acres of peanuts were planted in Mississippi, hardly worth a mention by USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service. But when the 2002 farm bill did away with the quota system for peanuts, acreage started to climb toward respectability.
“It opened the door for anyone to grow peanuts,” said Mike Howell, area agronomist for the Extension Service who has peanut responsibilities for the state. “We had a lot of new growers coming in because of that.”
In 2005, a threshold was reached when NASS began listing Mississippi as one of 10 states planting peanuts. By last year, plantings had grown to 18,000 acres, thanks to increases among established peanut growers and the continued influx of new growers.
Peanut acreage in Mississippi for 2008 is expected to be between 22,000 and 25,000 acres, according to Howell.
That's a little lower that USDA's March estimate of 28,000 acres, a difference Howell attributes to rising soybean and corn prices. “And peanut farmers weren't sure about the impact of the farm bill.”
The biggest growing region in Mississippi is in southeast Mississippi around Lucedale and Hattiesburg. “We're also seeing a lot of expansion in the northeast part of the state between Columbus and Aberdeen, (and extending west) to Vardaman and Eupora,” Howell said.
A third, smaller peanut-growing region is developing in the Port Gibson area and going north, “as well as a few clusters popping up around the Delta.”
Howell believes peanut acreage in the state will reach a plateau eventually, “because there is just not a lot of land suitable for growing peanuts in Mississippi. We have to be picky where we plant peanuts. But if we get them in the right place, peanuts can do really well. We have a little more room to grow, but we're never going to be as big in acreage as Alabama or Georgia.”
Lucedale, Miss., peanut producer Clayton Lawrence said he and a partner “bought a little quota from north Mississippi in 1998 to get into the business.” Today, Lawrence produces 350 acres of peanuts and was recently elected president of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association, now in its third year. “Peanuts have been good to us. We encourage people to look at them, if they have the soil type.”
Peanuts are starting to gain respect from Mississippi growers who like the good price, the rotational benefits and the legume's drought tolerance.
“Peanuts take dry weather as well as any other crop,” Lawrence said. “They can postpone setting a crop until late in the season, or set it early, depending on when the moisture comes. They take storms very well. In the southeast part of the state, hurricanes can be a problem. But the peanuts are in the ground and all you need is a little dry weather later on.”
Howell noted that many northeast Mississippi farmers, stuck in a lingering drought, have gone to peanuts for that very reason. “We were averaging 1.5 tons of peanuts right beside cotton making 200-pound to 300-pound yields, which is no comparison.”
Peanuts also make a great rotation partner, according to Howell. “It looks really good planting corn or cotton behind it. We can also save about 35 units of nitrogen on a crop that follows peanuts.”
“Since they are a legume, you can put a little nitrogen back into the ground,” Lawrence added. “Most of this ground is new peanut ground, so we can get some outstanding yields.”
Rotation can cut the disease cycle in peanuts, too, according to Howell. “We don't want peanuts on a field more than once every three years, just to keep the disease cycle broken up. Right now, we are able to eliminate some scheduled fungicide applications simply because we're on new ground and we're rotating. As long as we can keep these rotations spaced out, we'll be able to grow peanuts without having as much disease pressure as in some other states.”
Howell says it's important to keep peanuts on the right soil type. While peanuts prefer sandier soils, “we do have some peanuts on loamy-type soils, and they do well. But we have to stay away from the clays. If it's dry, you can't get the peanuts out of the ground. If it's wet, all the clay sticks to them and you can't get them cleaned up.”
Peanut prices, while not comparable to those for corn and soybeans, are still very attractive, according to Howell, “which has a lot of growers interested.”
On the other hand, peanuts “are extremely labor intensive, especially at harvest. We can only combine between 20 acres and 25 acres per day. Timing is critical at harvest. It's not like cotton, which will hang on for a little while and let you go get it when you're ready. When peanuts are ready, you need to be there to get them right then.”
Lawrence says research projects funded by Mississippi checkoff funds include variety trials in conjunction with Mississippi State University and the National Peanut Lab. This includes an extensive trial with 28 varieties on Lawrence's farm.
There are also research plots for peanuts under drip and center pivot irrigation and under no-till, strip-till and conventional tillage systems. Howell is also conducting studies with peanuts on ryegrass pastures, “to see how much we can cut back nitrogen in the ryegrass.”
The most popular peanut variety in Mississippi is Georgia Green, developed at the University of Georgia. “There are several new varieties coming on line,” Howell said. “But most are developed at the University of Georgia and the University of Florida.”
In 2007, Mississippi peanut producers averaged 3,200 pounds per acre, and produced nearly 60 million pounds of peanuts, according to USDA. Mississippi's 2008 acreage is projected to be higher than acreage for Virginia, New Mexico and Oklahoma.
The Mississippi Peanut Growers Association has about 50 members. MPGA officers elected at the organization's annual meeting were Clayton Lawrence, president, George County; Lonnie Fortner, vice president, Claiborne County; Van Hensarling, treasurer, Perry County; and Mike Steede, secretary, George County.