Richard Rentz grows three different peanut crops — they’re all peanuts, but each is a little different.

Peanuts have been a big part of his Branchville, S.C., farming operation since he began in 1978, but keeping the crop profitable is an ongoing challenge, and being selected the Farm Press 2010 Peanut Profitability Award winner for the Upper Southeast Region recognizes his efforts in building a high quality production program and for his leadership role in promoting peanuts.

Rentz, who is chairman of the South Carolina Peanut Board, grows runner type peanuts, Virginia type peanuts and green peanuts.

The green peanuts are technically large kernel Virginia types, but the fresh market for which he grows them demands both a visually attractive and tasty kernel.

He also grows cotton and corn and is one of a handful of independent hog producers left in the Southeast. To say he is following a family tradition is a classic understatement.

Rentz farms on the same land that has been in the family since before the Civil War. His great, great grandfather started the farm in the mid-1800s and a Rentz son has farmed there ever since.

Ironically, he planned to end that tradition when he left to study mechanical engineering at Clemson University. But, he says, “I didn’t realize how much I loved the farm until I left it.”

Not long into his collegiate career, he switched his major from mechanical engineering to agricultural engineering, and after earning his degree, he returned to the farm to continue the family tradition.

Rentz and his wife, Lil, have two sons, Ralph, 12, and Lyle, 9, both of whom love helping out on the farm.

“My father had mixed emotions about me coming back to farm and I feel the same way about my sons,” he says. “I hope they will have that option when they finish their education, but I’m not so sure I want them to farm.”

Though he grew green peanuts on a small scale for a number of years, he didn’t get into full-scale production until he bought some quota in the early 1990s.

“I didn’t inherit any quota on this farm, but was able to buy some — and enjoyed growing peanuts in the government program,” he says.

When the peanut program was discontinued as part of the 2002 farm bill, production in South Carolina started increasing, and continues to do so. To paraphrase the country song that made Barbara Mandrell famous, in South Carolina, Richard Rentz was peanuts before peanuts were cool.

For more than 30 years he’s grown green peanuts, which are picked premature and, to meet consumer demand, must have high moisture content. They are a premium product that demands high seeding rates — 200 pounds per acre or more, compared to 125 pounds for his other Virginia type peanuts.

Consumers want a big kernel, so he typically plants Gregory, which produces a high percentage of jumbo kernels. This year he is among a select few growers who will plant a few acres of Bailey, a new variety recently released by the North Carolina State peanut breeding program.

Green peanuts are inverted at about 90 to 100 days and must be hand-picked — the fresher the better. He usually starts planting the green peanut crop in early March and continues into June to stagger harvest and keep a constant supply available from mid-July until late September. He plants conventional runner and Virginia-type peanuts in late May.

“Our harvest weather is typically much better in October than September, so we try to wait a little later than some folks to take advantage of drier weather. Most years it works out that October is drier than September.”

Rentz says peanuts fit well into his four-year rotation program. He is able to irrigate less than one fourth of his crops, and the four-year rotation gives him some flexibility in moving crops around to take optimum advantage of limited irrigation capabilities.

“I like to grow corn behind peanuts, because I think I get better nitrogen utilization. Two years of cotton and one year of corn and peanuts works well.”

Over the past 10 years, he’s averaged nearly 2 tons per acre on mostly dryland runner peanuts, so the rotation is especially beneficial to peanuts.

Though he grows three crops — all of which require specialized harvesting equipment — Rentz focuses on peanuts. He custom picks peanuts and trades out with neighbors who harvest his corn and cotton.

“Staying small helps us in a lot of ways, but really pays dividends during the harvest season,” he says.

“I like growing runners because we have a little more flexibility and not as much seems to go wrong as with Virginia-types. At harvest time, especially for dryland Virginia peanuts, dry weather at the wrong time can really cause problems.”

He uses conservation-tillage on cotton and corn, but says strip-tillage for peanuts just hasn’t worked out well on his farm.

“Across the farms that I do custom picking, I suspect those planting in strip-tillage systems lose 200 or more pounds of peanuts in the digging and picking process.”

Three years ago, he switched to a twin-row planting system with 36-inch centers and rows seven inches apart.

“We started out with it because it is clearly a better system for Georgia Green runner type peanuts. Time will tell whether it will be better for our Virginia type peanuts.”

This year, he’ll plant Georgia Greener and Georgia O6G. For nearly 20 years he planted only Florunner, then only Georgia Green. Georgia Greener and O6G are bigger plants than Georgia Green, so time will tell whether the seven-inch rows will continue to pay off, he says.

He tries to put as many acres of Virginia types under irrigation as possible, and says in some years he gets a 400-pound to 500-pound yield increase on irrigated peanuts versus non-irrigated. In a good year, irrigated or not, Virginia types will out-yield runners, he says, “but overall there’s not a great deal of difference in a good runner type versus a good Virginia type peanut.”

Virginia types this year are bringing $500 per ton and runners $450, though some buyers are offering slightly more for both types. Factoring in additional costs for seed and landplaster, and often extra disease protection for Virginia-types, there is very little difference in what a farmer gets for the two types, Rentz says.

His four-year rotation means most of his land is tilled only once every four years, but he says he gets many of the benefits associated with conservation-tillage. He deep tills his land every four years, which helps with weed and disease management.

White mold is constant threat, so he uses Convoy and/or Artisan for soilborne disease management. He starts with two chlorthalonil treatments and rotates triazole and strobilurin chemistry as disease pressure builds during the growing season.

Growing peanuts and corn also helps Rentz with another rapidly-building problem in South Carolina’s peanut belt — herbicide-resistant weeds. He has some minor problems with weeds resistant to ALS chemistry, but says the combination of deep tillage every fourth year and rotating herbicides among his three crops has so far kept glyphosate-resistant pigweed away from his farm.

“Overall, growing peanuts is not the biggest challenge we have — it’s what to do with them once you get them out of the ground,” Rentz says.

Five years ago, he teamed with some other growers to build a cooperative to dry peanuts. Each grower contracts with whomever he wishes, then delivers his peanuts to the dryer cooperative, which takes the peanuts to their assigned buying points.

“From time to time, we run out of trailers, but normally we take a full trailer to the drying point and come back to the farm with an empty trailer. It’s already saved us a lot of money and promises to be even more beneficial in the future.”

Rentz says his work with the South Carolina Peanut Board has been rewarding in a number of ways.

“One of our most critical problems is getting a better farm gate price for our Virginia type peanuts. We don’t have a sheller in South Carolina, and we’re working hard to get a shelling facility somewhere in the midst of our 12-15 county peanut production area.”

Marketing and promotion are the keys to making peanut production more profitable, he says.