For years, says Don Self, “My father and I just grew cotton and soybeans, with a little corn occasionally. But when we started growing peanuts, rotation became a necessity in order to limit diseases, and we dropped soybeans.

“Even though soybean prices have been attractive in recent years, we don’t want them in rotation with peanuts, because they have some of the same diseases,” says Self, who now farms with his father Dennis, son Nathan, and son-in-law Hank Harrington at Hamilton, Miss., and is Mississippi’s representative on the 11-member National Peanut Board. “We adopted a one-third cotton/corn/peanut rotation that we stick to religiously.”

Except for this year.

“We’re all peanuts,” he says. “The $750 per ton contract price at the start of the season was just too good not to take advantage of.

“With the big price runup to $1,000 in 2011 due to the crop shortage nationwide, a lot of people were holding out this year for $900 or even $1,000 — kinda like holding out for $1.50 cotton a couple of years ago. But I told the Birdsong Peanuts people, ‘We’ll take all we can get at $750; in fact [he laughs], I’ll contract years ahead for $750.’
“Trying to get the top price for any crop is just a shot in the dark; nowadays, a farmer has to maximize every dollar. If I can see a good profit, I’ll take the sure thing any day over trying to hold out for an extra dollar that may never materialize.”

Next year, he says, “We’ll go back to our rotation program.

“When I’m talking with new growers, I tell them I can’t emphasize enough the importance of rotation — not just for disease/weed control, but for the benefits that each crop provides for the others.”

Although the Selfs have only been growing peanuts since 2007, they’re among the pioneers of the crop in northeast Mississippi.

“In 2005, Dan West, who farms here in Monroe County, was the first to grow peanuts for Golden Peanuts,” Don says. “The Atkins family, William Dean, Allen, and Brian, also here in Monroe County, were second, and in 2007 we were third.

When the first peanuts went in and additional growers were being sought, Don began an intensive study of the crop.  “I studied peanuts night and day, read everything I could get my hands on, talked to every grower and every specialist who would give me time,”

“A lot of what I knew from my years of growing cotton, soybeans, and corn I had to throw out the window. Planting depth, for example — I’d never before planted any crop 2½ to 3 inches deep. There was a real mental adjustment. And every year we grow the crop, I learn something new.

 “After all my studying, I told Daddy, who’d grown cotton all his life, that if we could survive the learning curve for growing peanuts, I believed they could be a profitable crop.”

“Ever since then when a problem would come up — particularly in 2009, when we got 35 inches of rain from Oct. 1 through Dec. 15 — Daddy would ask me, ‘How long is this learning curve going to last?’

“For a lot of Mississippi farmers,” Don says, “2009 is the bad year to which they’ll compare all future bad years. We’ve never had one that bad, and I hope we never see another like it.

“We had 80 acres of quality peanuts on top of the ground and we could never get a combine in the field to harvest them. It was sickening. But the deer had a great feast all winter long — they love peanuts! — and in the spring we plowed under what was left.”

In meetings where he speaks, particularly to new growers, Don likes to say, “Peanuts are a tough crop, and they can be very forgiving.”

But he then adds a cautionary note: “There are a lot of things that can go wrong — and if you think you’re just going to plant them, then wait to dig them and collect your money, you can be in for a rude awakening.”