The Georgia Peanut Tour, usually held during the last week of August each year, never fails to deliver in its promise to offer the most up-to-date look at the state's crop condition prior to harvest. These two-day tours also feature the latest in peanut production research in addition to stops at various peanut-related industries.
But the more than 200 participants on this year's tour were offered something extra special — a surprise visit by peanut farmer and former President Jimmy Carter. Carter, who splits his time between a home in Plains and the Carter Presidential Center in Atlanta, gave a welcoming address at the tour's first research stop, the Southwest Georgia Branch Experiment Station in Plains.
Although Carter's one-term presidency will be remembered most for the Iran hostage crisis and various economic woes, he has performed admirably in his role as ex-president and elder statesman. Through his work with Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center, he has touched millions of lives throughout the world, and he has redefined the role of a former president.
Dressed in faded jeans and a cotton shirt, Carter related to peanut tour participants the role that peanuts and farming have played in his life.
“I have been involved in peanuts longer than anyone here,” Carter said jokingly. “I started working with peanuts when I was five years old. My father was a peanut grower, just north of Plains. As the peanuts began to get ripe, in July, Daddy would let me go into a field and pull up enough peanuts to fill up a little wagon that I would pull back into the yard.
“I'd pick the peanuts off the vine and put them in salt water. The next morning, I'd get up at about 4 a.m. and boil about 10 pounds of peanuts. I would put a half pound in 20 different bags, and I would walk two and a half miles down the railroad track to Plains, where I would sell my boiled peanuts.”
And even at that early age, Carter said, he was able — on these visits to Plains — to make moral judgments about the people of the town. “I could tell who the good people were in Plains, and I could tell who the bad people were — the good ones were the ones who bought my boiled peanuts.”
After a youth spent on the farm, Carter left home and joined the Navy, where he served for 11 years. “When I came home from the Navy, my only job was to grow peanuts and sell fertilizer and seed. We also grew cotton. I began growing very high-quality, certified seed peanuts — I think the best ones in the state. Later, I put in a peanut shelling plant,” he said.
Just prior to being elected president, Carter says he was in the peanut business “in a big way.”
“I put my business in a blind trust when I went to the White House. I didn't know what was going on, and I didn't want to know what was going on. But, while I was in the White House, we had three years of terrible drought. And, when I left the White House, instead of having a flourishing business, I was $1 million in debt.”
Carter says he was very lucky that Archer Daniels Midland decided to go into the peanut business. “At the time, ADM was processing almost 30 percent of all the soybeans and corn in the country, and they decided to get into the peanut business. They bought my business and six others.”
But peanuts, he says, remain an important part of his life, and he's an equal partner in a Plains peanut farming operation. “I was walking in my peanut fields yesterday, and I think we have a good crop. We don't yet know what's going to happen with the government peanut program. I haven't heard any good news. One reason I came here for lunch today was to hear some good news about peanuts, and I haven't heard it yet.
“The program will be changed, but I have a feeling that farmers can be resilient and innovative enough to go ahead and make a good living,” said Carter.
The former president said the problems faced by farmers today, while great, still pale in comparison to problems faced during the Great Depression.
“Our lives are much better in many ways. But in other ways, such as the intimacy of people sharing their hardships, we're not better off today. That was a wonderful way to grow up, and not a bad environment. From that, I became a state senator, then a governor, and then president. The things I learned from being a peanut farmer put me in good stead throughout my life's work.”