Georgia peanut farmers could increase acreage as much as 10 percent this year as first-time growers take advantage of the new farm bill provisions that eliminate the old quota system.

But acreage is a moving target, says John Beasley, Georgia Extension agronomist and peanut specialist at Tifton. Beasley says early in the year, based on discussions with farmers at production meetings across the state, he would have estimated acreage at a plus or minus 3 percent of last year’s 500,000 acres. A 3 percent increase seemed the more likely scenario, he says.

But he began to hear rumors from various sections that acreage would decrease more than expected and from other areas that farmers would plant considerably more peanuts.

"We were asked to hold peanut production meetings in counties that had never requested a meeting before," he says. "Several counties in the eastern part of the state indicated an interest in peanuts. We also heard that several historical peanut areas would cut back. We felt like the pluses and minuses would be pretty much a wash," he says.

But then the Virginia card fell. Georgia produces mostly runner-type peanuts, used primarily for peanut butter and other processed foods. Virginia and North Carolina, historically, have grown the larger, Virginia or "ball park" peanuts.

"But Virginia and North Carolina growers cut acreage about 25 percent last year and indications are they’ll cut back again for 2003," Beasley says. Virginia-type peanut buyers looked south to fill part of the gap and have contacted growers in South Carolina and Georgia about growing Virginias.

Beasley says early information indicates potential for a $435 per ton contract for Virginia peanuts, compared to $375 to $380 for runners. "We’ve heard of Virginia contracts as high as $500 per ton in the North Carolina/Virginia market. Shipping costs will be less, so they can offer a little more than in South Carolina and Georgia."

Adding up potential new acreage and subtracting acreage that may revert to cotton, Beasley figures Georgia farmers will plant from 5 percent to 10 percent more peanuts this year.

"But it’s still far from certain," he says. "We’ve been working with farmers in county meetings, trying to impress upon them the need to develop accurate production budgets and evaluate yield potential. We figure a dryland producer will need to make from 3,000 to 3,500 pounds per acre to make a profit at $375 to $380 per ton."

They’ll need to do even better if they opt for Virginia type peanuts. He says one of the varieties that could work well in Georgia, Gregory, has bigger seed than runner types. "If growers plant 6 seed per foot of row, which is what we recommend, they’ll need 190 pounds per acre of Gregory. They’ll pay from $30 to $45 more per acre for seed costs compared to Georgia Green, our most popular runner peanut, which costs about 55 cents per pound and requires fewer pounds per acre.

"They also need to add more gypsum to Virginias, which could mean another $35 to $40 per acre. So farmers will spend nearly $100 more per acre up front to grow Virginia type peanuts. Also, we don’t recommend farmers plant Virginia peanuts without irrigation."

Beasley says growers must consider all these additional costs before they contract to grow Virginia-type peanuts. "We’re just trying to make producers aware of the production costs," he says. "They have to do some arithmetic before they decide."

He says most farmers are looking at base acreage for cotton and peanuts and determining which will offer the best program payment option. "That gets confusing," he says.

He says the market for peanuts has jumped the past few weeks, reducing the loan deficiency payment farmers would receive. "Marketing specialists tell us peanut markets need to be at $280 or $290 per ton for any significant government payment to kick in."

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com