For years, tomato spotted wilt virus knocked a hole in Joe Ward’s peanut yields. Last year, the Chowan County producer got back on track through a program of cultural practices and varieties aimed at reducing its risk. Also, it may have helped that TSWV wasn’t as severe in North Carolina in 2003.

The result: Ward had yields of 5,100 pounds per acre in 2003. He farms with his son, Brian.

Ward is the Farm Press Peanut Profitability winner from the Virginia-Carolina region.

He follows the Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus Risk Index developed by North Carolina State University and Virginia Tech.

An economist by training, Ward adopts practices that add to his bottom line.

For example, take TSWV.

TSWV pressure had been slowly building over the years in the V-C area. It hit with a vengeance around the turn of the century, and sent researchers searching for a way to help farmers minimize risks. Extension and researchers in Virginia and North Carolina relied heavily on a TSWV Risk Index developed in the mid-1990s in Georgia by Steve Brown and colleagues at the University of Georgia. The Risk Index relies on the use of varieties, planting dates, twin-rows, plant populations, tillage and insecticides.

On Ward’s farm, he’s planting one week to 10 days later than he once did. Planting date plays a big role in reducing TSWV risk. “Our goal is to plant between May 10-15 if possible, depending on the weather,” Ward says.

He’s increased planting rates from 140 pounds to 150 pounds per acre.

He was one of the first in the area to plant twin-rows. Ward began planting twin-rows in 1981. “It makes a difference in yield.”

He’s also spreading out his harvest as well as his risk to the virus by planting five different varieties: 92R, VA 98R, Wilson, NC-V 11, and Gregory. Ward grows about two-thirds of the peanuts for seed.

For the past two years, he’s shied away from planting Perry, which has little resistance to TSWV.

Most of the peanut acreage is planted on twin-rows, a practice that is recommended for reducing risk to TSWV. He grows the Gregory variety on single-rows because of rank vine growth.

“For four years in a row yields went down because of TSWV,” Ward says. For the past 20 years, Sclerotinia blight has been the major concern. Now it’s TSWV.

Located just south of the Virginia-North Carolina line, Ward farms in an area known for good yields and high disease pressure.

He keeps a close eye on diseases in his fields, operates on a spray schedule and uses a four-year rotation.

Three weeks before he plants, he fumigates his peanut land before bedding the rows. Around the last week of June, he’ll start a six-spray fungicide program on a 14-day schedule, alternating sprays between two materials with different modes of action.

While Sclerotinia has taken second place in the diseases of concern in the V-C, it’s by no means off the chart. “Sclerotinia blight can devastate a crop if you don’t stay on top of it,” Ward says. It’s also an expensive proposition to control, costing about $40 per acre per treatment. Ward averages treating for Sclerotinia twice each year.

The disease thrives on cool nighttime temperatures. So far in 2004, the weather has been just right to get the crop off to a good start and out of the way of diseases, Ward says.

Forward thinking led Ward to combat another perennial concern: drought.

He began setting up his farm for irrigation in the mid-1980s and now has more than 4 miles of underground pipe laid 36 inches underground through his fields. About half of the 270 acres can be irrigated. He has three Hobbs reel-type systems that he hooks up to risers in the fields that connect to the water source.

Last year, he installed a center pivot irrigation rig on his sandy land. “I didn’t need irrigation last year,” he says. “But in most years, I’ll need it.”

Under the old peanut program, he grew mostly quota peanuts and reports he’s probably a little worse off under the new program. “It all depends on the price,” he says. “I hope we can stay in the $500 per ton range, or I’ll cut back on acres.”

He sells his crop to Golden Peanut Company through C.A. Perry and Son. “Bud” Perry is his brother-in-law.

Since most of the peanuts are destined for seed purposes, Ward applies landplaster at a rate of about 1,500 pounds per acre. He also pays close attention to weeds.

As for the future of peanuts, Ward sees hope. He cites statistics that peanut usage is up 10 percent in the United States.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com