While the fact was left unstated, east central Alabama farmers attending an evening meeting in Shorter, were passing an historic milestone. Peanuts, a crop once confined to the southeastern perimeter of the state, are moving north and west into regions where cotton was once the undisputed king. East central Alabama is no exception.
There are many reasons why, according to Jeff Clary, a retired Alabama Cooperative Extension System agent who has continued working with Extension helping farmers adapt to new technology and trends.
One of them is nematodes — soilborne pests that continue to plague cotton yields, he says.
In addition, cropland, in some cases, is “getting a little worn” — all the more significant now that farmers are learning about the “wonderful things” that can occur when peanuts are planted behind cotton, Clary says.
Other, less tangible factors also are playing a role, notably the buyout of peanut quotas, which made it feasible to raise the crop in other regions of Alabama.
Money, of course, is playing a role too. Despite all the challenges the crop has faced within the last few years, peanuts can still turn a buck, especially in an era when crop diversification is more important than ever. Small wonder why cotton growers had lots of questions, at the meeting, held at the Mistead Cotton Gin at Auburn University's E.V. Smith Research Center in Shorter.
Randy Griggs, president of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association, stressed that peanuts, while often lucrative, also come with their share of risks — one reason why growers should carefully assess their marketing strategy.
“The peanut market is changing — it's more volatile than it used to be, and growers need to look at that and all of their market options,” Griggs says. “Nobody cares about your bottom line but you, so you need to constantly assess ways you can streamline your efficiency to enhance profitability.”
Griggs says it's also crucial for growers to keep abreast of cooperative efforts among growers as well as technological advances that will enable them to continue cutting operating costs.
Following Griggs' remarks, Dallas Hartzog, an Alabama Cooperative Extension System peanut agronomist and Auburn University professor of agronomy, introduced the growers to the basics of peanut production.
One essential rule of thumb for launching a successful peanut operation is finding someone equipped to provide accurate, up-to-date advice on production practices.
“There are lots of people giving advice, but this is your money,” Hartzog stressed. “Your job is to evaluate who you're going to take advice from.”
He cited experienced peanut growers as comprising one of the best sources of advice. He also introduced members to the Alabama Peanut Team, comprised of regional Extension agents and specialists, as another crucial source of information.
Austin Hagan, an Extension plant pathologist and Auburn University alumni professor of entomology and plant pathology, also emphasized the importance of controlling peanut diseases.
“Peanuts are different from cotton,” Hagan said. “With peanuts, diseases have a major impact on yields and can have long-term implications on whether you will have a successful crop.”
Eddie Segrest, a Macon county farmer who turned out his first crop last year was also on hand to answer questions from perspective growers and to offer practical advice.
More than 60 growers and others attended the meeting, including one Mississippi Delta producer.
Reflecting on the meeting, Clary says he still finds himself shaking his head whenever he thinks about the changes that have overtaken east central Alabama farming in recent years.
“Not too long ago, we were all cotton producers,” he says. “Peanuts weren't even considered, but because of the evolving needs of Alabama agriculture, they're now an up-and-coming crop — something I wouldn't have imagined 30 years ago as a young Extension agent," he says.