Finding a good crop to grow in harmony with cotton was an ongoing challenge for Luray, S.C., grower Bud Bowers, but a decade or so ago he found a near perfect match: peanuts.
Now, the crop is an integral part of his farming operation.
Corrin F. Bowers, Jr., known to one and all as Bud, is the 2012 Peanut Profitability winner for the Virginia-Carolina peanut-producing belt. He grows about 600 acres of peanuts and 1,200 acres of cotton on his farm, located about 100 miles west of Charleston, S.C.
After graduating from the University of South Carolina in 1975, farming was undergoing some serious problems, and his father didn’t want him to be a farmer. So, Bud started his professional life selling specialty advertising products.
“But, I knew I wanted to farm,” he says, “and I thought I wanted to be a peach grower,” he says.
So, in 1976, he went back to the farm, growing corn, soybeans, cotton and peaches. After a rough start in drought-plagued 1976 and 1977, the peach business finally came around and did well into the 1980s.
In 1986, he had a complete crop failure with peaches, forcing him to take some unwanted steps in order to survive.
“By the mid-1990s,” Bud says, “I finally realized I couldn’t make it growing peaches here — our climate is too prone to hot, humid weather and early spring freezes.”
He went through some tough times trying to get out of the peach business and find a different crop mix.
“Without the support of my wife, Sallie, I couldn’t have made it,” he says. “She comes from a farm background, and she knew some of the things I was going through.”
Now married more than 31 years, Bowers says Sallie’s support and that of his family have played a big role in whatever success he’s had in farming.
His daughter, now Louisa Beach, helped with the business side of his farming operation, doing weekly payroll and taxes. His son, Corrin F. Bowers III, now farms in partnership with him.
The soil and climate in the southeast corner of South Carolina, where he farms, is ideal for growing cotton, and after peaches were gone, Bud significantly expanded his cotton acreage. But, finding a second or third crop to go along with cotton proved a more difficult task.
In 2002 serendipity came calling: The peanut allotment program was gone; peanuts had never been grown on most of his land, reducing potential disease risks; and prices were good compared to other crops. So, he got into the peanut business.
Irrigation makes a difference
“I was interested in peanuts because I have irrigation,” he says. “The first year, I planted some Virginia-type peanuts under irrigation and some dryland. We made a big crop both ways, but yield was especially good under irrigation.
“In years when our dryland peanuts haven’t been especially good, we’ve found they tend to clean up the land, and we make better cotton and corn on that ground in following years.
His peanuts are grown as part of three entities. He and son Corrin have one farming operation; he also farms on his own; and he farms with long-time friend and neighbor, Mickey Ginn. Combined, Bud plants about 600 acres of peanuts annually.
In addition to peanuts, he still plants about 1,200 acres of cotton and about 200 acres of corn. The rotation, he says, has worked out well for all the crops he grows.
“We usually plant peanuts in front of cotton on our irrigated land. Sometimes there is a carryover of Cadre, which we use on peanuts, and it can affect cotton. But, irrigation tends to flush out the Cadre residue.”
Disease is a big concern for most peanut growers, but Bud says, planting peanuts on land not historically used for that crop has been a plus.
“We want to continue to keep disease pressure to a minimum, so we usually extend our peanut rotation to four years. In some fields we can plant peanuts every three years.”
This year was really tough at planting time. Despite having irrigation on about half of his land, he was delayed in planting due to an extreme lack of moisture.
Typically, he plants cotton from late April to mid-May and peanuts from early May up to May 20. This year, he couldn’t start planting cotton because the soil was too dry.
“We’re in an area where herbicide-resistant weeds are a concern,” Bud says. “We feel we have to use preplant herbicides, which need water for activation. We couldn’t afford to plant our cotton into dry soil, unless it was on irrigated land. The delay on cotton got us backed up on planting peanuts, making the whole planting season one of the most stressful in my career.”
Bud’s planting woes were compounded by the death of long-time employee and expert peanut planter/bedder Seres (Earl) Johnson.
“Earl was a really good employee, but I didn’t realize just how much I missed him until we got backed up this spring — trying to get cotton and peanuts planted in dry weather was a mess.”
Irrigation was a salvation at planting time. He has a sophisticated system of soil monitors that go back to his early days of growing irrigated cotton. The monitors can be accessed remotely by radio, telling him when to water. From a computer in his office, he can turn pivots on and off and determine whether they are running.
Over the years, irrigating peanuts has been a virtual guarantee of producing two tons or more per acre. In a recent year, his dryland peanut yields dipped to about 1,400 pounds per acre. “Typically, we average about 4,000 pounds with irrigation and 3,000 pounds per acre on dryland peanuts,” he says.
Moving into high-tech
Farming with his son, Corrin, has been another blessing that has made his operation much more high tech-oriented, as well as more efficient and profitable, Bud says.
Bud’s University of South Carolina degree is in business and Corrin’s is in engineering — a combination of expertise, numbers, and technology that has worked out well, they say.
“I grew up working on the farm, and I always loved being outside and working with equipment,” Corrin says. “When I finished my engineering degree, Dad told me I could do anything I wanted professionally, but he wanted me to have the experience of working away from the farm before making a commitment to farming.
“During school, I did co-op work with Gulf Stream AeroSpace and worked with them when I finished college. But, I knew in that job I’d sit behind a computer the rest of my life. Then, I went to work with Monsanto’s Deltapine division in Mississippi. But that just wasn’t what I wanted to do.
“This is my third year of working full time in agriculture, and Dad has made it possible for me to have the best in technology to use on the farm,” Corrin says.
The blend of new technology from Corrin and Bud’s hard-earned knowledge from growing 10 peanut crops seem to be a perfect combination of new technology and tried-and-proven experience.
Bud, who is one of two South Carolina peanut growers appointed to the National Peanut Board, has been a sounding board for a number of South Carolina growers who’ve entered the peanut business over the past decade.
He says he learned some hard lessons about inoculants, experience that he is quick to share with prospective growers. “Peanuts are a legume, and they fix their own nitrogen — but not without some help,” he says.
“I tell anyone interested in getting into peanuts — and most of them are planting on land that has never been in peanuts — to be sure they apply an adequate amount of inoculant to the soil. A new grower needs to understand that they have to have an adequate amount of inoculant and farm their own nitrogen, because they surely won’t be able to afford to apply nitrogen to a peanut crop,”
Typically, Bud applies 10-12 gallons per acre of a bacteria-containing liquid to help peanut plants fix nitrogen in the soil. On new land, he says, he double-treats to be sure he gets adequate inoculation.
“On older land that’s been in peanuts before, you can cut back on the innoculant,” he says, “but we usually go about 1.5 times the recommended rate on new land.”
This year, he is planting about a third of his peanut crop, or 200 acres, on land that has never been in the crop.
“Getting that land properly inoculated is critical, and being backed up at planting time has made it really difficult,” he says.
The other key point he shares with new growers is to get the right digging equipment — and “don’t even think about digging peanuts without a GPS guidance system. In modern peanut production, I just don’t think you can dig peanuts profitably without GPS.”