Todd Lewis, 2007 Upper Southeast Winner

Peanut profitability depends on timing people and faith says NC grower

Todd Lewis is a self-professed peanut man. He loves growing peanuts, knows how to grow them, and has an office full of trophies to prove it. The keys, he says, are timing from planting to harvest, having good people to help in planning and execution and strong spiritual faith to get you through the hard times.

These are some of the reasons Lewis was named the Farm Press Peanut Profits Award winner for the Upper Southeast.

Hard work also factors into the equation. He and his father cleared much of the land that is the heart of Indian Neck Farms, which is in Gatesville, tucked into the northeast corner of North Carolina and only 30 miles or so from Suffolk, Va.

"My father was in the lumber business, but had grown up on a farm. He had a dream of starting a farm. Back in the early 1970s we were clearing 100 acres of land a year. After a few years he hired a farm manager and began growing grain crops. I grew up hanging out with the farm manager and developed a love for farming. Early on I knew farming was what I wanted to do," Lewis says.

The keys to being profitable he says, starts with faith. "I see some people who are always crunching numbers and that can be good, but in farming there are too many unknowns. At some point, you just have to have faith in God, what you are doing, and the people who help you,’’ Lewis says.

Timeliness is the No. 1 thing that is critical to growing peanuts, he says. "I wouldn’t even attempt to grow peanuts without my crop consultant, Webster Harrell. He keeps track of our peanuts and tells me the precise time to spray, to fertilize, to dig, and that is critical information. Without that outside insight, I would tend to do everything too soon and that can cost you money on the front and back end of a crop," Lewis says.

"Sclerotinia is a big challenge for us and staying on top of that is absolutely critical. If we can spray it when it first starts, we have a chance, otherwise it is tough to manage. Once you are behind, you are behind for the whole crop season and once you have lost that yield, you can never get it back," he adds.

"I believe in cutting corners to save costs, when it can be done without cutting yield. If I know it will pay, I will do it, and I’m sure I’m not growing peanuts as cheap as I could, but I feel like everything I do adds to the overall profitability of peanuts," Lewis says.

"One cost cutting measure we have looked at with Webster is delaying our first leafspot spraying. If we can do that, some years we may eliminate one spray. We feel like the last spray is much more important than the first one. Once that first spray is done, you are pretty much locked into your program. With Sclerotinia, we spray when Webster tells us to spray. In some years not spraying for Sclerotinia or delaying that first leafspot spraying can pay for the cost of a good crop consultant," Lewis contends.

In fields with Schlerotinia, Omega is the fungicide of choice for Lewis. "When Omega is used, it creates a different management schedule. It is expensive, but it controls white mold and other problems, so you only need to control leafspot in those fields," Lewis says. Because so much of his land is relatively new, Lewis says he probably has less Sclerotinia pressure than most farmers in his area.

Some contend that Schlerotinia put more people out of the peanut business than did changes in peanut legislation. "At nearly $40 per application and up to three applications per year, using Omega to manage Schlerotinia is a costly proposition. Other than Sclerotinia, we can compete with any area of the country in growing peanuts profitably," Lewis says.

After earning a degree in Agricultural Equipment Technology from North Carolina State University in 1984, he returned to the farm and began building one of the state’s most successful farming operations. Mechanics has been a big asset on the farm — we do all our own work on farm equipment, he says.

Having cleared most of their farm land, they didn’t have much of a peanut allotment. Lewis started out growing 50 acres of peanuts and quickly bumped that up to 300 acres. When the peanut program went away, he bumped his acreage up to 600 acres.

"When we increased our acreage from 300 to 600 acres our yields dropped from 5,100 to 5,200 pounds per acre to 4,700-4,800 pounds per acre. It was easier to hit the 5,000 pound per acre yield on 300 acres than to produce 4,800 on 600 acres, which we have done for the past three years," Lewis says.

The reason for the drop in yield, he says, is dropping back from a four-year to a three-year rotation. Corn, cotton and peanuts has produced good yields, but not as good as adding a second year of corn in the rotation, he contends. "I only cut back the rotation on land that I know is good, sandy peanut land," he adds. Marginal peanut land has a longer rotation, he explains.

In addition to his peanuts, Lewis grows 1,000 acres of cotton, 600 acres of soybeans and 600 acres of corn. "I plant corn behind peanuts to rob the extra nitrogen that peanuts leave. I don’t really like cotton in the rotation, but I know it’s better than soybeans. On our sandy land, it’s hard to be competitive with grain, but I feel like corn is essential to a good peanut rotation," Lewis says.

"I don’t chase the markets. I plant what the land will grow best. On land that will grow corn, I plant corn and beans. I increased my corn acreage slightly this year, but when you factor in the added cost of producing corn it’s not going to be a great financial advantage. For example, I just bought 27-0-9 side-dressing to fertilize my corn and that cost $330 a ton or about twice what it cost last year. Then you add the fuel to irrigate corn and other costs, and I don’t see it as being any more profitable than it was at $2.80 per bushel," Lewis says.

Over the years peanuts have been his staple crop. "I know what price I’m going to get when I plant peanuts. So the only variable is yield. Since we have some land that hasn’t been in peanuts for long periods of time, I believe that with Gods’ blessing, and the people I have to help me, along with experience we have together, I am hopeful we can produce better than 4,500 pounds per acre and that will be profitable for us," Lewis notes.

The North Carolina grower plants Gregory, Perry and Wilson varieties, and last year planted some Champs. Wilson, he says, has been a consistently good variety that mature early, pods hold well at digging time, and they seem to perform better on non-irrigated land.

Gregory has a high percentage of extra large kernels and they seem to handle tomato spotted wilt virus better than other varieties. "If tomato spotted wilt wasn’t an issue, Perry would probably be the best variety we could plant, because of their resistance to Cylindrocladium black rot (CBR) and high yield potential," Lewis says.

CBR and Sclerotinia blight are two disease problems that cost North Carolina and Virginia growers more money than some growers in the other peanut producing belts spend on all pest management problems. Lewis has to use Vapam or similar soil sterilizing materials on about 75 percent of his land.

I take a little different approach to managing CBR. I plant twin rows, which would cost $45-$50 per acre for Temik, so I don’t use Temik. I use Orthene in a tank-mix with Lift in the furrow. Orthene costs about $14 per acre. I use the money I save on Temik for gas. I need the gas for CBR, and I get better control of nematodes and Orthene takes care of thrips, Lewis explains.

A few years back, Lewis moved to twin row plantings, which allows him to increase seeding rate on some varieties, especially Perry. This provides better ground coverage and gives plants more room to spread out and produce more limb crop. "It allows plants to spread out on our sandy soil and plant competition is reduced," he says.

The twin rows are planted on 38-inch rows with two separate Monosem air planters that are staggered to produce two nine-inch rows. With this system he can plant 145 to 160 pounds of seed per acre.

Getting the right vine growth is critical when planting twin rows, he says. "Getting it too thick can create a digging and disease nightmare. Getting the plants thin enough will allow better sunlight penetration, but too light will take away yield", he says. "The amount of vine growth on Virginia types on the rich sandy soils in his area can be unbelievable, if the plants aren’t properly managed," he adds.

He prepares his peanut land by applying a 5-15-30 or similar ratio fertilizer blend, disking and bedding. He applies a quart of Prowl per acre behind the disk to manage grass and small-seeded weeds. Then he levels the land with field cultivators, rows it up and applies gas at least two weeks prior to planting. Most of his peanuts are planted by mid-May.

In the past decade, Lewis has won the State Yield Championship four times, and his farm office is lined with county yield awards. Though he produces top yields in other crops, peanuts are his favorite.

Bob McLendon, 2007 Lower Southeast Winner

Peanuts remain most profitable crop for Georgia grower

There are two ways of producing peanuts, says southwest Georgia’s Bob McLendon. "You can produce them as cheaply as possible and yields won’t be quite as good as they might be otherwise. But I’ve always taken the other position," says McLendon, this year’s Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner for the lower Southeast region.

To pay for good labor and good equipment, a farmer has to make good yields, and that’s the approach McLendon has taken to peanut production. "We spend quite a bit on our peanuts. Our variable costs run at about $275 per acre, and those are the inputs we purchase to make a crop. Our yields are extremely good," he says.

McLendon also was the University of Georgia’s yield champ this past year in the 700-plus acres category, with a yield of 5,116 pounds per acre on about 1,100 acres.

McLendon began farming in 1974, growing corn and peanuts on an every-other-year rotation. "We started putting in irrigation systems before we started farming, in 1972. My background in banking and finance taught me that the only way to make money in farming was with irrigation," says the Calhoun County, Ga., farmer.

Because of nematode problems, the University of Georgia recommended in 1979 that he grow cotton for rotational purposes because nematicides were being taken off the market.

"We started growing cotton in 1980, and we still continue to grow corn and peanuts. With the elimination of the boll weevil through the eradication program, our corn continued to decrease while our cotton acres continued to climb. In 1986 or 1987, we ended up with cotton and peanuts on a three-year rotation, with two years of cotton and one year of peanuts.

"This year, because of demand, we’ve put corn back into our rotation. The preferred rotation for peanuts is peanuts followed by cotton followed by corn, with peanuts being planted behind corn. I’m now on a three-year rotation, and as long as corn prices stay at $3.50 per bushel or better, we’ll continue to plant corn. It helps to divide our work. I didn’t realize how nice it was to have one-third of your acreage planted in March," he says.

Corn requires more irrigation, says McLendon, but 100-percent of his cropland is irrigated. "All of our crops are irrigated and have been for 20 to 25 years. All of our irrigation is center pivot, with about half of the water coming from wells and the other half coming from above-ground storage, including ponds and lagoons.

"With irrigation, even when prices are bad, you still have something to sell. And when dry weather — like we’ve seen this year — results in less than desirable production, you have something to sell at a higher price. We’ve consistently been able to make crops over the years because of irrigation," he says.

McLendon says he basically follows the University of Georgia’s recommendations for his peanut production program, along with those from the National Peanut Research Lab in Dawson, Ga., and his consultant Jack Royal.

"We were the first in Calhoun County to plant twin-row peanuts, and they improved our yields by 500 to 700 pounds per acre. The other factor that has enabled us to make higher yields is our fungicide program. Dr. Davidson, former director of the peanut lab, came up with a program that we have followed, with some adjustments. We use Abound, which has controlled rhizoctonia and pod rot. These were our biggest problems. With the twin rows and Abound, our yields increased significantly," says McLendon.

This is his third year for using GPS for planting and harvesting peanuts, and he has been pleased with the results. "We plant the crop and determine the latitude and longitude on which we plant, and then we store that information in a computer. When we come back to plow up peanuts, we put in those same numbers. This allows us to follow the same row, tremendously reducing our harvesting losses."

McLendon strives to do everything on a timely basis, and having good labor contributes to his success in this area.

"They work at trying to harvest everything we make, and they work as hard for me as if they were working for themselves. I have one employee who has been with me since I started in 1974. The bad news is that out of eight employees, four are on Social Security. They work because they want to work. They enjoy working and I provide a good place for them to work. I’m on Social Security myself, but I don’t want to retire. I don’t hunt or fish, so all I know how to do is work."

For weed control on peanuts, he uses traditional herbicides, including Sonalan, Storm, Gramoxone and Cadre.

"We don’t put out any fertilizer on peanuts and haven’t for many years. Peanuts utilize the fertilizer from past crops. We do use insecticides, including Lorsban. We’ve tried not using Lorsban because it’s so expensive, but we learned that skimping wasn’t the way to make high yields. In some years, we don’t have to use anything for worms. Last year, we used Steward insecticide where needed."

McLendon sprays fungicides on a 10-day schedule, starting with Tilt/Bravo and then moving to Bravo. He then makes two applications of Abound before applying Folicur for white mold control.

"We have tomato spotted wilt virus, but we’ve delayed our planting to the window recommended by the Extension Service, and we don’t start planting peanuts now until after May 10. Twenty-five years ago, we were planting on April 10. We’ve found that twin rows cover the ground more quickly, and it reduces tomato spotted wilt virus, regardless of when we plant."

Although he has looked at the possibility of strip-tilling peanuts, McLendon says the research hasn’t shown a big enough yield difference between strip-till and conventional to justify the changeover. So he continues to break and turn his peanut land while strip-tilling cotton and corn.

He uses the IrrigatorPro expert computer system from the National Peanut Lab to help determine when to irrigate. "We put the data in the computer twice a week, and we irrigate whenever it says to irrigate."

McLendon says his county Extension agent, Paul Wigley, uses the hull-scrape method to help him determine the optimum time for harvesting.

"I use a lot of people in my farming operation. I’ve never done anything right the first time by myself. I’ve always followed what other people have done, and I try to improve on it," he says.

McLendon’s entire peanut acreage is planted in the Georgia Green variety. "The variety has been awfully good to me. I’ll keep using it until we have one that’s a proven producer that performs better than Georgia Green."

His peanut acres have continued to fluctuate over the years mainly because of purchasing land and rotation needs. "I started in 1973 with about 600 acres of all crops. Through the years, we’ve added land, and we’re now at about 4,500 acres of row crops. But I rent out a good portion of that to other producers."

Dry weather during the early part of the 2007 season has been a concern for McLendon and other area farmers.

"We’ve had to irrigate corn quite a bit, and we irrigated cotton up to a stand — we’ve always done that. It took two irrigations this year to get peanuts up to a stand. In April, we paid about $14 per acre just for fuel to irrigate. This will be a very expensive crop, and it’s as dry as I can remember for this time of the year."

Peanuts, say McLendon, remain his most profitable crop. "Our peanut yields this past year resulted in us grossing more than $1,000 per acre. Nothing comes close to that. Fertilizer prices have increased so much that it has taken a great deal of the profitability out of corn."

A past president and former chairman of the board of the National Cotton Council, McLendon says the most satisfying thing he has done in agriculture was to give the testimony for the 2002 farm bill, recommending the direct and counter-cyclical payments for cotton.

"We were the first to testify, and the farm bill we got — including the peanut program — was recommended by the National Cotton Council."

Looking ahead to the new farm bill, he believes cotton and rice won’t fare as well as in the current legislation. "Because of high commodity prices, we have less money to write a farm bill than we had in 2001. I don’t expect we’ll have farm programs as good as the ones we now have.

"In the history of farm bills, a good bill usually is followed by one that is not as good. Freedom to Farm just about put us out of business, but then we got a good program in 2002.

The peanut program, says McLendon, has generally been good for the industry. "The program put us in the possibility of a world market. But the USDA’s determination of peanut redemption prices has been higher than the world price of peanuts. We tried to craft the program like the one we have for cotton. But with cotton, we have a known formula for determining the adjusted world price, and we need the same for peanuts. We need a world price that will allow us to be competitive.

McLendon and his wife Barbara have four daughters and seven grandchildren.

Clint White, 2007 Southwest Winner

Profit drives management decisions on Clint White’s peanut operation

Clint White figures the best reason to plant a peanut crop is to make a profit from it and not just to see how many pounds he can coax out of an acre.

That’s not to say he skimps on the necessities or that he’s satisfied with low yields. Most years he’ll push 5,000 pounds per acre on the Wilbarger County, Texas, peanut, cotton and grain farm he operates with his father Dan. He follows a sound rotation practice, irrigates as needed, and controls weeds and diseases as necessary. But he limits production costs to what the crop will give back.

That frugal philosophy earned White the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award for 2007. He will accept the award at the annual Southern Peanut Farmers Federation annual meeting in Panama City, Florida.

"I don’t try to make the highest yields," White says. "I want to be profitable. We have to watch costs, especially fertilizer and energy the last few years. The key is to cut costs without sacrificing yield."

He’s cut back on tillage by using a disk bedder to prepare land in the fall, behind cotton. "That saves four trips across the fields," he says.

He fertilizes his wheat crop and relies on the residual for peanuts and cotton. "I fertilize the wheat before planting and then I top-dress it," he says. "I add very little fertilizer to peanuts."

Water is the key, Dan says. They rotate with cotton and wheat and plant half circles to maximize water efficiency.

They harvest the wheat crop and plant cotton behind it. In the fall they use the disk bedder to prepare land for peanuts the following year. "We don’t get two full years between peanut crops," White says. "But we get two crops in. We’ll have three crops within 13 months."

Disease pressure has been low with that rotation system.

They concentrate available water on peanuts. "Peanuts keep us going," White says. "We’ll have about 760 acres of peanuts, mostly Virginias and some runners, this year."

He wants to get one-and-a-half inch of water on peanuts every weak during the growing season. "One year we put in a center pivot in April, turned it on and then didn’t shut it down until September. We had 2,400 hours on it."

Having cotton under half the pivot helps. "I’ll water peanuts two or three times more than I do cotton," he says. "If I tried to make two-and-a-half bales of cotton per acre, I’d apply more water. But we plant late (after wheat harvest) so we water to make from one to one-and-a-quarter bales. We try to be efficient. About every third time I water peanuts I’ll run across the cotton. We have to be efficient with water."

They started out with hand-moved irrigation systems early on. They planted only about 10 acres of peanuts at first, back in 1986. As they added acreage, they switched to side row irrigation and then to pivots. They used Natural Resources Conservation Service funds through the environmental quality improvement program (EQIP) to upgrade to center pivots.

"We replaced the last side-row system with a 20-acre pivot," White says. "We can water that in two-and-a-half days. It took seven-and-a-half with the side row system. Water efficiency is also much better with pivots."

They didn’t water as much as they wanted last year. "We had to cut back some because of a low water table. We didn’t have to shut the wells off, but we did reduce the amount of water we used."

They’ve changed seeding rate slightly over the years. "We started at 100 pounds per acre," White says. "Now we’re at 90 to 95 pounds per acre. We have planted as little as 72 pounds per acre and saw no yield difference. A lot depends on seed size."

They use chemigation for much of their weed control. "We’ll bed up cotton stalks after harvest and then chemigate with Prowl. We’ll try Prowl H2O this year."

They use Cadre when the peanuts are up, five weeks or so after planting. "That’s worked well for us," he says. "We might need 2,4-DB or butyrac for escaped morningglories. We may use some Select."

Rotation with Roundup Ready cotton also helps control weeds and grasses. "We rarely have grass problems," White says. "And we’ll use shallow sweeps in the peanuts, maybe twice a season."

They occasionally add guar to their rotation program and can have trouble with volunteer guar in a subsequent peanut crop. "We didn’t use the moldboard plow one year where we had guar and we should have," White says. "Volunteer guar is hard to manage."

Disease pressure is rare. Clint says he sprayed 100 acres with Abound last year for pod rot but the season was so dry disease infection was not significant. "I sprayed once late for leaf spot," Dan says. "We only had to spray about one-third of the acreage."

They use Bravo and Tilt when necessary for leafspot.

Insect pressure heavy enough to require treatment is rare.

They divide acreage into Virginia type and runner type peanuts — 460 Virginias and 300 runners this year. "We spread harvest out that way," White says. "We want to be done before the first freeze even though freeze damage has been rare. Once we start harvest, we keep moving."

They usually finish in three weeks. Last year they stretched to five-and-a-half.

Dan does the digging with an eight-row digger. "We switched from four-row to eight last year," he says. "I can dig twice as many acres. I can start on a half-circle and be done by dark."

He says design of the new digger is also better.

They like to combine when peanuts dry to 14 percent to 18 percent moisture. "We may combine as high as 20 percent, depending on the weather forecast," White says.

Clint combines 60 to 80 acres in a day. "When we first started growing peanuts we were a bit leery of digging ahead of a rain," White says. "Now, we’re more concerned about beating a freeze."

They add value to their crop by baling and selling peanut hay. "We bale almost all our peanuts and can get as much as two tons of hay per acre," White says. With hay stocks short the past two years they’ve gotten as much as $70 a ton for peanut hay. "It’s good feed," Dan says. "Hay pays drying costs. We consider the hay as gravy."

They finished planting the 2007 crop around May 20, a little later than their usual goal of May 15. Rain delayed them a bit, but moisture conditions heading into this growing season were considerably better than last year.

"We haven’t had too much rain this spring," White says. "We’d get three-tenths of an inch and seven-tenths, but no heavy rainfalls. We had an inch or more in January and about two inches in February. We’re in good shape, much better than last year."

"We’re about 75 percent better than in 2006," Dan says. "We’re close to normal water table levels."

Clint and his father farm some acreage together and each has his own. But they work together on a regular basis.

The farm has been in the family for generations. "My great grandfather came in 1890," Dan says. "Ranchers settled back then where the grass was as high as a man on horseback. They were looking for grazing land."

"But peanuts do well in this sandy land," White says.

Clint and his wife Amy have four children, Colby, 16; Kaylee, 14; Kelsey, 7; and Carli, 3.

The family is active in the First Baptist Church of Vernon and Clint is president of the Northside School Board and chairman of the Wilbarger County Soil and Water Conservation district. He’s also involved with the Wilbarger Farm Bureau and the Junior Livestock show.

"We have been blessed," he says.