Georgia peanut producers appear to be on the verge of a perfect season, or as perfect as a season comes in farming. Above-normal rainfall, below-normal temperatures and below-normal pest pressure have combined to give growers their best yield potential in many years.

"It has rained every time I’ve needed it," says Mike McClendon, a grower in south-central Georgia’s Macon County. "I haven’t started my irrigation pump this year, and that’s unusual. But it has been a challenge — with all of the rainfall — keeping up with our leafspot sprays and being able to get into the fields in a timely manner."

Neighboring farmer Glenn Lee Chase is guardedly optimistic about the chances for a bumper peanut crop this year. "We had a good crop last year, but we lost a lot in the field because the rains came, and we couldn’t get the peanuts gathered," he says.

University of Georgia Extension Peanut Specialist John Baldwin agrees that some caution is warranted until the crop is out of the field.

"We have yet to see what is going to happen from Sept. 15 through Oct. 15," said Baldwin during the recent Georgia Peanut Tour. "That is a critical month for our growers. We’re watching these tropical storms, because that’s what hurt us last year. We had an excellent crop in 2002, but we couldn’t get it out of the field."

A big plus for Georgia peanut growers this year has been that they’ve seen minimal damage from tomato spotted wilt virus, says Baldwin. "We’ve seen much less damage this year compared to last year. However, those growers who had plant stand problems are seeing significant levels of wilt. We’re seeing levels of the virus — depending on location and variety — anywhere from 15 to 35 percent."

Frequent rainfall, says Baldwin, has resulted in growers having difficulty applying fungicides and herbicides on a timely basis, with many fields having fungicides applied by air.

"Disease buildup certainly isn’t uncommon in a rainy year. Growers have had problems getting into the fields, and they’ve had difficulty tightening up those spray schedules. We’ve also seen some insect damage this year, especially from soil insects. They’ve done significant damage in fields with a history of soil insects, and where growers weren’t able to treat at midseason because of the rainfall," he says.

Less than 5 percent of Georgia’s peanut crop this year was planted before May 1, with 70 percent of the acreage being planted between May 1 and May 25. Initial estimates were that producers in Georgia would plant 500,000 acres this year, down from 510,000 in 2002. The preliminary certified acreage report from the Georgia Farm Service Agency indicates that 536,766 acres were planted.

"We’ve been a little short this season on temperature and heat units. We’ll probably end up with more immature peanuts because those peanuts have really loaded up on the front end. In some areas, we’ve gone as long as six to seven days without rain, and we’re now setting a second crop in a lot of those fields. So we’ll see some split crops," says Baldwin.

While rainfall fell throughout Georgia’s peanut belt this year, the amounts differed, he says. "Some fields would get a half inch while others would get 3 inches. Some fields received rain throughout the summer but still didn’t have adequate moisture during that critical pod-fill period."

The majority of the state’s peanut acreage was planted in the Georgia Green and C-99R varieties, says Baldwin, but many growers also planted several newly released cultivars.

"Some of these newer varieties are large seeded, and we’re wondering if we have enough calcium to develop those kernels in extremely wet fields where some of the gypsum has leached."

Barring any weather problems during harvest, Georgia growers should make record or near-record yields this year, says Baldwin, with a statewide average of more than 3,000 pounds per acre.

"There was no such thing this season as a dryland peanut. Some fields might have had one irrigation, and that was the first one at planting to incorporate herbicides."

Determining the maturity of peanuts could be a tricky proposition this year, notes Baldwin. "Depending on the soil type, the total amount of rainfall, and the variety planted, we’ll see tremendous differences in maturity among planting dates and fields. We’ve already seen some of this.

"Ordering fields to harvest is even more critical this year, especially looking at which fields can be harvested in wetter conditions if that becomes necessary. If a grower sees some white mold coming in, but the hull-scrape shows maturity is still 21 days off, he should wait. "Our research with Florunner shows that you can pick up as much as 700 pounds per acre of peanuts during the last three weeks prior to maturity. You also can pick up one to three points in grade. That will be your $355-plus peanut, and that’s what you need to be shooting for."

Several factors need to be considered in determining maturity, including vine condition, peg strength and variety planted, says Baldwin.

"It’s more art than science. If you’re within a week, that’s one situation. If you’re outside of a week, you really need to hold on if you can. If a weather front is coming in, you’re better off. If it comes and goes through quickly, you made the right decision by leaving peanuts in the ground. If a weather front comes in and sits on us for a week or two, you made the wrong decision.

"As long as the peanuts are freshly dug, you’re okay. If the peanuts start to dry down, and then you receive rainfall, you’re increasing your chances of aflatoxin and harvest losses."

It’s important now, says Baldwin, that growers be prepared to harvest. "You need to have your equipment ready. We’ve already had growers who did the hull-scrape showing they were a week away from digging, but they were not ready. We’re getting maturities all over the board. We’ve had Georgia Greens maturing from 125 days up to 145 days."

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com