About 10,000 years ago, a big bang of sorts occurred somewhere in South America, an event unremarked at the time but which served as the genesis of a product destined to change the make-up of school lunch boxes, crop rotations and the snacking habits of people across the globe.
“Spontaneous creation,” says Howard Valentine, resulted in the peanut in South America, where it was used primarily for animal feed.
Valentine, retired executive director of The Peanut Foundation, speaking at the 50th annual meeting of the American Peanut Research and Education Society, traced the peanut from its origins to modern technology that just decoded its DNA.
That meeting took place recently in Williamsburg, Va., not far from where the first cultivated peanuts were grown in the United States.
Valentine says peanuts got to Virginia onboard slave ships headed to U.S tobacco plantations — dark beginning for a crop that now provides benefits to farmers, multiple industries and consumers who enjoy both the health and the flavor benefits of scores of peanut products, including the ubiquitous peanut butter sandwich.
“How did peanuts become an edible product?” Valentine asked the APRES audience. The Civil War played a role. “Soldiers (North and South) needed a source of protein that didn’t spoil and was portable.” Peanuts fit the bill.
He says, after the war, peanuts became more popular as snacks and late in the century, around 1890, George Washington Carver, working at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, “developed more than 300 uses for peanuts, including oil and flour.”
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Around 1896, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg produced an early peanut butter product. Peanut butter was available in pails by 1920. Other products, still available, followed. Squirrel Nut Zippers candy was developed in 1905; Goo Goo Clusters followed in 1913.
Peanut shelling facilities began to pop up, one as early as 1879 in Philadelphia, others in Virginia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Columbia Peanut Company came on in 1896 in Norfolk; Birdsong built in Suffolk in 1914.
“The boll weevil helped promote peanut production,” Valentine says. The weevil was destroying cotton fields and economies across the South, and peanuts offered a rotation option and a cash crop. “The people in Enterprise, Ala., built a monument to the boll weevil,” Valentine said.
Early production depended on manual labor. Mules pulled a plow to dig peanuts, which were left on the ground to dry. “Farmers pulled peanuts off the vines by hand.”
They stacked those vines, which retained quality until buyers could come pick them up. “Stacked peanuts provide the most flavorful peanuts,” Valentine said.
“Farmers stacked the vines and sold the peanuts when they needed money.” Prices ranged from 15 cents to 20 cents a pound.
The 1920 and 1930 decades saw development of a lot of peanut products,” especially candy,” Valentine says. The Baby Ruth candy bar (not named after the baseball player) came out in 1923; Hershey offered the Mr. Goodbar in 1925; Planters brought out cocktail peanuts in a can in 1928. Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup also came along that year.
Mars hit the market with Snickers in 1930. Payday came in 1932.
Other products came later — M&Ms in 1954, Jif Peanut Butter and the 5th Avenue Bar in 1958.
Valentine said as late as the 1940s the peanut industry still depended on manual labor. “Shelling plants used labor and long tables to sort peanuts,” he says.
“In the 1950s and 1960s, farmers were still stacking peanuts, but they were able to expand acreage, improve quality and make better yields. Most peanuts were still being bagged.” Bagging was standard until 1977, he says. Weights from bag to bag were inconsistent, which was not a big issue without an export market.
The first peanut dryers were in use around 1960, Valentine says, “mostly on farms at first and then to shellers.
“We saw a lot of changes in the 1970s to the 1990s.” Shelling and storage facilities were large, long buildings with improved technology. Diggers and combines replaced labor with mechanization. “We also produced a more high-quality product.”
The early 21st century brought many more new products, including flour, oil and, more recently, peanut milk.
The peanut industry has withstood the challenge of changing political winds, too, Valentine says. In the 1930s, a government program regulated peanut acres; in 1949 a quota system was initiated. In 1977 the quota program was changed to pounds and was eliminated in 2002.
During the last 50 years, encompassing the life of APRES, peanut production has increased. “Yield has increased significantly (doubled),” Valentine says. Shelling capacity has progressed to meet the demand.
And consumer demand continues. “The National Peanut Board (NPB) was created in 1996,” Valentine says.
NPB, funded by industry checkoffs, promotes peanut consumption, serves as a watchdog for issues that affect demand, and provide funds for research into new products and to improve farm efficiency.
Valentine, who worked closely with the industry initiative to map the peanut genome, says technology now available will permit breeders to select for desirable traits to improve yield and quality and possibly to eliminate one of the biggest challenges of the industry — peanut allergies.
That’s a quantum leap from the peanut’s beginnings — from spontaneous creation to the ability to use genetic markers to identify traits and create an even better product.
If a product better than a Snickers bar is even possible.