Peanuts have grown from niche crop status to big business near Alabama's Gulf Coast, where an enterprising group of farmers has found the legume to be a profitable alternative to slumping grain crops.

With the most recent farm bill allowing farmers to transfer quota across county lines, several thousand acres of peanuts have moved from southwest Alabama's Wiregrass region to the counties dotting the state's Gulf Coast. And a number of growers are making the most of the opportunity.

"In a year like this one, when dry weather cuts our cotton yields in half, we still can dig a good peanut crop. It's like having insurance, and we're not putting all of our eggs into one basket," says Tim Mullek, a Baldwin County farmer who has been one of the leaders in bringing peanut production to southeast Alabama.

"We've been very fortunate and have been blessed with good land that had never seen a peanut until a few years ago," he adds. "We farm in an area that usually receives adequate rainfall. Peanuts really do well here."

Mullek, who farms with father Joe and brother Michael, planted his first crop of peanuts in 1998. "We were primarily grain farmers in the 1970s and 1980s. We began growing cotton in 1990 and grew corn from 1993 to 1998. We've grown cotton and peanuts during the past two years. Cotton has been good to us, and we probably wouldn't still be farming without it," he says.

Mullek, along with two other Baldwin County producers and a north Florida grower, made the commitment in 1998 to grow a total of about 950 acres of peanuts. "That's how we started, and we couldn't have done it without Reeves Peanut Company of Eufaula, Ala., and Auburn University, especially Extension Agronomist Dallas Hartzog. Likewise, Reeves would not have come down here without our commitment to producing peanuts."

When Reeves Peanut Company began searching for a buying point location in Baldwin County, Mullek bought four acres in his home community of Summerdale and leased it to the company. Reeves put in a buying point in 1998 with one drying shed. Two more drying sheds and another elevator were built in 1999, and six additional acres have been purchased for future expansion.

Baldwin County's peanut acreage has grown from 950 acres in 1998 to about 5,950 acres this year. It's projected that there will be about 8,000 acres in 2001.

"We could have as many as 10,000 acres," says Mullek. "It depends on how many grain farmers are willing to try peanuts. Most of the transfer quota is coming from the Wiregrass region, and most of it is leased quota."

The Mullek's peanut crop has grown from 450 acres in 1998 to 1,170 acres this year. They also grow about 450 acres of cotton. "We're looking at growing about 1,200 acres of peanuts and 800 acres of cotton in 2001. We'd like to have a one-to-one rotation of cotton and peanuts."

Growing a new crop, he says, required purchasing some new equipment. "We already had a planter so all we had to buy in 1998 was a four-row inverter and a used four-row combine. In 1999, we sold the four-row combine and bought two six-row combines and a second digger. We also bought a 50-foot boom sprayer."

Mullek has modified his peanut planting methods in an effort to become more efficient. "In 1998, we planted peanuts on the flat. We chisel-plowed, put out herbicide on an angle and planted. In 1999, we went with the bedding system that we use in cotton. We chisel-plowed, put out Sonalan on an angle and bedded up, just like we did for cotton. That was a four-step process.

"This year, we bought a 25-foot heavy disk, an eight-row ripper-bedder and an 8400 tractor. We disked one time on an angle and then pulled the eight-row ripper-bedder. We put a boom on the ripper-bedder to put out Sonalan. The herbicide goes out in front of the ripper shanks. It's bedded up in only two trips, and we're using wider equipment. It helps to make life a little easier."

With no previous experience growing peanuts, Mullek has taken the "conservative" route with most of his production practices. For grass control, he begins with Sonalan. At about three weeks after emergence, he'll use Storm or Cadre in combination with Starfire/2, 4-DB. Then, he'll treat with 2,4-DB in his first two leafspot applications.

"For disease control, we go with the tried-and-true method. This includes two Bravo sprays on the front end, with one pint of Bravo in the first treatment and one and a half pints in the second one. This is followed by four applications of Folicur, at 7.2 ounces per treatment. We put out two applications of Bravo at the end, at 1.5 pints per application.

"Our disease pressure is heavy in this coastal climate, with rain coming in from the Gulf of Mexico. Even with clean land, we need about eight fungicide treatments to keep leafspot at a minimum."

Although tomato spotted wilt virus currently isn't a problem in coastal Alabama, Mullek still does everything possible to prevent any future outbreaks of the disease.

"We planted 88 pounds of seed per acre this year, trying to put down about five seed per foot of row. Pound-wise, it's not a lot of seed, but we get a good stand. We also use Phorate insecticide at planting."

With only one center pivot, Mullek considers himself a non-irrigated producer. In most years, he says, there's adequate moisture to make a crop. "For the most part, it has been dry here since Hurricane George came through in September of 1998. But, because we're not growing a winter crop or winter grazing for cattle, we can soak up the moisture we receive during the winter and not deplete our subsoil.

"This is a big benefit of the beds. If you can get an inch of rain, the moisture soaks to the center of the bed. When it's time to plant, and you level off that bed, you can get down to the center where there's good moisture. We planted our peanuts with no problem this year, and we got an excellent stand of peanuts on every acre. Cotton stands were erratic, and we needed a couple of showers to get a stand."

Mullek's proximity to the coast makes timely digging and harvesting essential to the success of his peanut crop. "We start planting on the first of May, and we don't want to dig before Sept. 15. We plant in our sandy soils before planting in heavier soils. We still can receive a fair amount of rain in September, and if the peanuts are ready, the heavier ground wouldn't dry out quickly enough."

Mullek sees a good future for peanuts in Baldwin County. "Peanuts go well with cotton, and cotton grows well behind peanuts. It helps us to break that continuous cotton cycle."