Marie Fenn calls it “playing tall.” Compared with other commodity groups, the budget of the National Peanut Board is small. But like the peanut plant itself, it has expanded its pegging zone and put on yields equivalent to more than two tons an acre in its short five years of operation.
“We've had to play tall to have a program that has an impact,” says Fenn, president and managing director of the National Peanut Board. “We've played tall with a little bit of money.”
Formed five years ago, the NPB is a farmer-owned “self-help group,” funded by peanut farmers themselves to the tune of about $10 million annually.
Speaking to the 36th annual meeting of the American Peanut Research and Education Society, Fenn said the NPB approached the challenge of increasing peanut consumption by addressing three areas.
“We have used a three-legged stool approach,” Fenn says. “We're addressing the present and meeting the future with research, both producer and consumer; we're spurring demand through innovative, creative, targeted marketing promotions; insuring a receptive market and anticipating challenges before they happen.”
Fenn told the peanut researchers that the NPB has a shared goal to help USA peanut growers increase yields, lower costs and grow the most desired peanuts in the world.
“Our industry is in a brand-new business,” Fenn says. “One grower told me that he had been in the peanut business only two years. He had been growing peanuts for a long time, but was reflecting on the last two years” of the new peanut program.
A commitment to research is one of the hallmarks of the NPB program, Fenn says. “Funding for research is now up to $8 million over five years and we've added $1.1 million to production research for fiscal year 2005,” she says. “A stimulated consumer market begins with research.”
Getting off to a good start in 2000, the NPB funded a Gallup Study on consumer perceptions and usage of peanuts and peanut butter. They also followed up a study tracking consumer behaviors in 2002. In 2004, a study conducted by Stanley Fletcher, a University of Georgia ag economist, showed a 16 percent to 20 percent increase in peanut butter sales in the New York and Great Lakes area. The NPB message is also debunking the myth that peanuts are high in cholesterol.
“Our program has a consistent look and feel, targeted to what the consumer wants,” Fenn says.
Take for example the friendly reminder posters, which create more than 2 billion consumer impressions annually. “It's tailored to work extra hard for us,” Fenn says.
The peanut message is targeting major urban markets, in subways and on trains. In a two- month period, the campaign had more than 700 million impressions. Fenn tells the story about a consumer who wrote to say she had taken one of the posters, only to notice that it was replaced soon afterwards.
NPB has also attempted to get peanuts back on Delta Airlines flights. Former President Jimmy Carter is featured giving a strong endorsement of peanuts.
The group has also teamed with celebrity chef Mai Pham to promote the message in the media.
NPB is in its second year of sponsoring an online course with pro-chef.com and has attended the Peanut Institute's World of Flavors Conference to discover new trends.
Along with Skippy, the NPB is targeting military consumption of peanut butter in 170 commissaries worldwide to 11 million shoppers. Noting the trend of 46 cents of every food dollar being spent away from home, the NPB has devoted more resources to creating more demand in the food service industry.
Staying ahead of developing issues, the NPB has a crisis preparedness team that monitors and responds to issues, educates the media and tracks emerging issues and corrects misinformation. The NPB has awarded more than $2 million to peanut allergy research. “NPB's funding has helped accelerate peanut allergy research,” Fenn says.
The combined results of the NPB's efforts for producers have been an increase in sales. “Peanut butter sales alone nationwide are up 9.7 percent,” Fenn says.
Realizing that consumer preferences change, Fenn asks the question, “How do we extend this national program?”
“Research is the key that opens the door to increased yield and increased use,” she told the APRES scientists. “It takes outside of the shell thinking and coordination.
“My hope is that we'll look at research differently. For producers to stay in business, we need to look at totally different ways of doing things. The vision of our board helps us do ‘more with less.’”