Last year during harvest, a passing observation by a friend prompted Macon County cotton producer Eddie Segrest to try something he'd never done before.
“A friend of ours from Pike county was helping us pick cotton last year,” Segrest recalls, “and he said, ‘Man, y'all ought to be growing peanuts in this dirt.’“
Segrest acted on the suggestion. Earlier this year, he hooked himself up with a buyer and took the plunge, planting more than 250 acres. Any day now, he's expected to harvest the first crop of peanuts he's raised in his entire life.
Reflecting on his decision with more than 80 other producers at the recent East Alabama Cotton Tour, the veteran cotton producer admitted his introduction to peanuts was challenging.
“We've had plenty of help and advice on what we needed to do and when we needed to do it, and when all of that adds up, you don't know what's right and what's wrong,” he observes with a chuckle.
As it turns out, Segrest is not the first producer outside the traditional Peanut Belt to develop an interest in the crop, and he's not likely to be the last. Peanuts, once associated almost entirely with the Wiregrass region in extreme southeastern Alabama, are making a tenuous debut in other parts of the state, including east Alabama.
It's a trend driven far more by crop production requirements than economics. For the last few years, Alabama cotton growers have been dealing with mounting problems caused by nematodes, soilborne pests that have seriously reduced yields throughout much of the state. Research conducted by Auburn University and other land-grant universities have shown that rotating peanuts with cotton can keep these troublesome pests at bay.
“One of the advantages of raising peanuts in rotation with cotton is that these two crops don't have the same nematodes and disease pests,” says Austin Hagan, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System plant pathologist and Auburn University Alumni Professor of entomology and plant pathology.
That, he says, is the reason why peanuts are such “an excellent alternative” for cotton farmers who have to deal with nematodes and fusarium wilt in their cotton.
Rotation studies and on-farm sampling within the last few years have shown that cotton producers derive the biggest advantages from the standpoint of optimal yield and lower pesticide costs when they rotate from cotton to peanuts once every three years. The peanuts benefit, too. Hagan and other experts have discovered that peanuts raised behind at least two years of cotton, corn or summer pasture are not prone to the disease and nematode problems common to areas of the state where the crop has been grown continuously — early leafspot and peanut root-knot nematodes being prime examples. This enables growers to save money by avoiding costly chemical treatments.
“Usually, on fresh land, you get by with one or two fewer sprays than what you would need in land cropped every year to peanuts,” Hagan says.
“I wouldn't expect to see any leafspot out here,” he says, pointing to Segrest's field. “But if you come back and put peanuts out here again next year, you're going to have more leafspot problems.
The same holds true for tomato spotted wilt virus, a serious problem throughout the Wiregrass region, though of less concern in other parts of the state where peanuts are relative newcomers.
Whatever the case, Hagan believes there are plenty of reasons why cotton growers in east Alabama should consider adopting peanuts in rotation with cotton.
“It's an excellent alternative to cotton,” he says. “We have lots of land in this area as well as along the Alabama River well-suited to peanut production.”
While he's the first to extol the merits of peanuts within a cotton rotation system, Hagan says growers will still need to plant corn or some other crop to suppress peanut nematodes as well as nematodes and Fusarium wilt problems with cotton.
East Alabama isn't the only part of Alabama beyond the Wiregrass and Gulf Coast region where growers are gaining an interest in peanuts. Growers in the west-central county of Dallas, planted roughly a 1,000 acres this year.