One of the biggest benefits to growing peanuts in Mississippi has been the relative lack of disease pressure compared to other more established growing regions of the Southeast.

That honeymoon period appears to be ending, according to Mike Howell, area Extension agronomist at Mississippi State University, who has peanut responsibilities for the state.

Eight years ago, fewer than 4,000 acres of peanuts were planted in Mississippi. But when the 2002 farm bill did away with the quota system for peanuts, acreage started to climb.

“It opened the door for anyone to grow peanuts,” said Howell. “We had a lot of new growers coming in because of that.”

In 2005, a threshold was reached when USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service began listing Mississippi as one of 10 states planting peanuts. By 2007, plantings had grown to 18,000 acres, thanks to increases among established peanut growers and the continued influx of new growers.

Peanut acreage increased to 20,800 acres in 2008, and growers were planning another small increase for 2009. But wet weather this spring has delayed plantings of peanuts as well as other crops in Mississippi and final acres for 2009 could be between 21,000 and 22,000 acres.

That includes significant acreage planted in June, Howell says. “The data from Georgia says to minimize problems with tomato spotted wilt virus, the best time to plant is after May 15. But we can’t plant them all then and expect to harvest them. We like to start planting around May 1 and hope to be through by the end of May.”

High prices for corn and soybeans have also pressured expansion of peanut acres in the state, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, according to Howell. “I don’t want to see acres expand too quickly. Peanuts are different from anything we’ve ever grown. A grower needs to take his time and learn how to produce a peanut properly before he gets in too deep.”

The state averaged a little over 2 tons per acre in 2008, which places them near the top in average yield in the United States. Howell attributes that to “relatively low disease pressure. Until last year, we had been able to get by without spraying a lot of fungicide.

“But it looks like the honeymoon period is over,” Howell said. “We’re starting to see some diseases creep in on us. Up until now, we haven’t had the acreage to allow the inoculum to build up.”

The buildup of disease “is not critical,” Howell says. “We’re just going to have to stay on top of it and tighten that spray window up a little bit.”

Howell says the appearance of disease after several years in which some producers did not apply any fungicides to their fields, wasn’t entirely unexpected. “We were hoping to go a little longer than we did. Most of it came in after the first tropical storm plowed through in 2008. Disease started popping up after that.”

To combat disease, Howell is recommending the Peanut Rx program developed by the University of Georgia and others. “We’re doing some work with it to see that it fits for us. The program looks at each field on an individual basis to assess the risk for disease before the planting season. You tailor your fungicide program according to that risk level.”

For fields in the high risk category for disease, Mississippi producers would begin their fungicide program about 45 days after emergence with a 14-day spray schedule. “We may have to tighten that up to 10 days.”

As peanut production in Mississippi has grown so has interest in research, new varieties and management practices. Earlier this year, nearly 80 growers attended the second annual meeting of the Mississippi Peanut Growers Association and short course.

The MPGA is working to fund several research projects including studies on weed control, fungicides and variety trials. “Nothing groundbreaking, we’re just trying to get some baseline data for Mississippi,” Howell said. “We’re a little different from Georgia.”

Mississippi producers continue to experiment with several peanut varieties including Florida-07, Georgia-06G and Georgia Green. “We were really high on AT215 because it’s an early-maturing variety. Some areas had good luck with it and others didn’t. We’re not giving up on it yet.”

One Mississippi producer ventured into drip irrigation for peanuts in 2008, according to Howell. “He planted the 40 acres in corn this year and will plant a cotton crop the next year. We may go with peanuts again the year after that.”

The biggest growing region in Mississippi is in southeast Mississippi around Lucedale and Hattiesburg. “We’re also seeing a lot of expansion in the northeast part of the state between Columbus and Aberdeen, (and extending west) to Vardaman and Eupora,” Howell said. A third, smaller peanut-growing region is developing in the Port Gibson area and going north.”

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com