Peanut harvest is under way in Georgia, and farmers are on track to set record-breaking yields for the state, say University of Georgia peanut experts.

“Given our current conditions, we have the potential for a really good crop,” said John Beasley, an agronomist with UGA Cooperative Extension.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Georgia’s average yield could be 3,500 pounds per acre, a new record. The current record is 3,450 pounds per acre set in 2003.

The prediction may be a bit optimistic, said Bob Kemerait, a UGA Extension plant pathologist. Farmers are finding some surprising damage from underground white mold that hasn’t been accounted for.

“We had factors that led to a perfect storm for white mold,” Kemerait said. “Even though it’s been a bad year for mold, I hope most producers won’t see a significant loss in yields.”

“We have fields with no indication of disease before the peanuts were dug that are exposing underground white mold and crop loss,” he said. “Growers are stunned to see that despite their best efforts with fungicide, white mold can still be a problem.”

To fight white mold, farmers spent between $70 and $150 per acre on fungicides this year. “As we approach 3,500 pounds, we need to remember that growers paid to make that yield,” Kemerait said. “They have to spend a lot of money to battle white mold to make that yield.”

On a positive note, damage from tomato spotted wilt virus, another major peanut disease, has been less severe this year than in the past.

Due to a large stockpile of peanuts from last year’s bumper crop, prices are low right now for farmers. They are getting contracts between $365 and $400 per ton. Last year, contracts were between $500 and $600 per ton.

“Demand is strong and steady,” Beasley said. “But there are more than enough peanuts, so we strongly encouraged farmers to reduce acreage during our winter meetings with county agents. We needed to reduce acreage by 30 percent.”

According to USDA, Georgia planted 503,000 acres this year, 187,000 acres less than last year.

For more than a decade, the variety Georgia Green dominated acreage in the state. Developed by UGA plant breeder Bill Branch, it saved the industry from tomato spotted wilt virus, which was threatening to cripple the industry in the mid-1990s. Now, higher-yielding and more disease-resistant varieties like Georgia-06G — also a UGA release — are taking over acreage.

Recent rain has been a mixed bag for farmers, Beasley said, keeping some out of fields and delaying their harvest.

“Rain has been untimely for some, but beneficial for others,” he said. “Nearly 40 percent of the state’s crop was planted in June and needed the late rain to mature.”

Peanut harvest takes place in two phases. Peanuts, which grow underground, are dug to the surface. They then lie in the field for several days to dry. Finally, a peanut combine runs over them, separating them from the vines and harvesting them. This all must be done at the right time.

“Digging them at the optimal maturity maximizes yield and grade potential, the amount of edible kernels when they are harvested,” Beasley said.

Harvesting on time is critical for flavor. Digging too early gives peanuts a bitter taste when roasted. Bitter peanuts are not desirable for making peanut butter, which is what most Georgia peanuts become.

But waiting too long to harvest can be bad, too. A farmer can lose as much as 300 pounds or more per acre in yield if peanuts are harvested too late.