Billy Bain is a third generation Virginia farmer who has seen the good and the bad for peanuts in his state.
Through ups and downs of the crop, Bain has remained steadfast in his stewardship of the land and for giving back to agriculture more than he takes from it.
One look at the awards that line the bookshelf behind his desk in the office of his 150-plus year old, well-restored Dinwiddie, Va., farmhouse is evidence enough that Bain is a successful farmer.
Even a brief conversation is evidence that he’s much more than that.
After living through the good times and the bad times of the state’s peanut industry, he’s optimistic some of the good times will return.
“I remember back when we used to shock peanuts on the stick. I used to love to hop off the school bus and help my father with the peanuts,” he recalls. As far back as I can remember, we grew peanuts on this farm, he adds.
When he took over the farm full time back in 1968, there was a 40 acre peanut allotment on his 200 acre farming operation. Now, he runs a diversified 3,500 acre farming operation that includes cotton, grain crops, beef cattle and peanuts.
The cropping configuration has changed over the years, but peanuts have always been a part of it.
“I’ve farmed peanuts under the acreage control system, under the quota system and under the current free market system. I feel like the first two systems were the best for all involved, including the federal government,” Bain says.
“Back in the ‘good ole days’, quality was the issue with Virginia-Carolina peanuts. Shellers wanted quality peanuts, and we have always been able to grow high quality Virginia type peanuts. Today, it seems, as long is its peanuts and its edible is the main issue. Virginia-Carolina growers still thrive on quality, because it carried us for so many years, Bain says.
Did not over-produce
“After we left the acreage system and went to a quota system, the Virginia-Carolina growers were able to control acreage to meet demand and not over-produce as some other growing areas did. I think growers in our area had been in the peanut business a long time and understood how the system worked,” he adds.
“When we were under the quota system growers in Virginia and North Carolina rarely over-produced and as a result 90 percent of the time all our peanuts were bought in the buy-back and were not a cost to the federal government.”
During the glory days of Virginia peanuts, the state produced over 100,000 acres annually. For years and years, Bain recalls, the state grew 75,000 acres of peanuts. Unfortunately, when the government ended the quota system, many growers got out of peanuts.
In recent years, peanut production in Virginia has dipped to near 12,000 acres. With prices good for the 2012 crop, Bain anticipates acreage may climb back to more than 20,000. “I would just hate to see Virginia not be a major supplier of high quality peanuts,” he says.
On the good side of the ledger, he adds, there are companies, like Planters that only use U.S. grown peanuts in the products. I wish all U.S. end users would make the commitment to use only U.S.-grown peanuts, he adds.
In recognition of his lifetime of contributions to the peanut industry, Planters recently named Bain as one of three winners of the first Naturally Remarkable Planters Award.
“Winning the award and joining my family and friends in New York City for the awards ceremony was a wonderful thing, but the best part of the award was the $10,000 that can be used to revitalize our local rural economy,” the Virginia grower says.
In addition to the prestigious Planters award, Bain was named Virginia Farmer of the Year in 2009 and competed for Southeast Farmer of the Year at Sunbelt Agriculture Expo. He has won numerous environmental awards.
Bain frequently entertains school groups at his farm and notes that giving back to the community is more rewarding than winning awards.
He also hosted the Virginia Ag Expo in 2008that took an incredible amount of time, but he says the rewards were well worth the effort.
Exactly how the $10,000 Planters award will be used to help his community is yet to be determined, he says. However, as with most rural Southeast areas, Dinwiddie County is in need of revitalization projects and the money will be a nice shot-in-the-arm to the rural economy there.
Share innovative practices
The Planters award was created as a way to highlight and share innovative farming practices within the peanut community — encouraging others to take part in sustainable agriculture projects of their own.
“The farmers’ innovative solutions in environmental and social practices are a perfect extension of Planters own sustainability journey — from reducing our packaging footprint by 84 percent in a glass to plastic conversion, to achieving a zero waste to landfill target at our facility in Suffolk, Va.,” notes a Planters spokesperson.
The other winners of the first annual award are Hawkinsville, Ga. peanut farmer Barry Martin and Seminole, Texas grower Otis Lee Johnson.
Bain has not only lined his trophy case with yield championships, including a Dinwiddie County winning total of 4,930 pounds per acre last year, but also with environmental awards. Good stewardship of the land, he contends, is beneficial to both the land and to producing high yielding crops.
Strip-tilling is now a common production practice across the peanut belt, but Bain was the first to try it in Virginia.
“I have a friend who farms just across the line in North Carolina who grew no-till peanuts, and I adapted what he was doing to our farm and started strip-tilling several years back,” Bain says.
“The first year, I planted a 12-row strip of peanuts using strip-tillage, then I went to an acre, to five acres, and then I knew it was sustainable, and I went to strip-tillage on the whole farm,” he adds.
In more recent years, Bain says he has gone to a four-year rotation on his peanuts. “It’s a primary reason our yields have been improving over the past few years.”
In fact, long-time Virginia peanut marketing guru Dell Cotton says 2011 was a record year for Virginia peanuts.
Once his peanuts are dug, they are slow dried to keep quality high. He comes back and smoothes the land and plants a cover crop of wheat. Much of the peanut hay is harvested and used to feed hisAngus beef cattle.
All these extras, he says, are small pieces of the puzzle that have allowed him to have any successes he’s had over the years in the peanut business.
Though the USDA totals state Virginia peanut growers produced more than 3,900 pounds per acre, Cotton contends, once the final totals were added in, for the first time in history the Cavalier State actually averaged more than 4,000 pounds per acre.
In the future, Bain says competing in a global market is going to be tough for peanuts.
“I feel like in the most current trade agreements, peanuts were the big losers. Other commodities did gain, but for the American peanut farmer, I feel like we came up on the short end of the stick,” Bain says.
“Our peanut breeders have given us really good varieties to plant and researchers have made big improvements on how we can manage diseases.
“I don’t see any great technological breakthroughs revolutionizing peanut production, but I think we have the tools in place to get the job done and to continue to produce high quality Virginia peanuts,” he adds.