The growth in peanut production in South Carolina is about as close to phenomenal as agricultural production gets. The state has gone from a few thousand acres at the turn of the millenium to what some predict may push 70,000 acres in 2011.

Two factors may dampen the projected growth, the availability of low cost calcium for Virginia type peanuts and the continued growth of herbicide resistant Palmer amaranth pigweed through the South Carolina peanut belt.

One of the small, but important factors in South Carolina’s rise to peanut prominence in the Southeast has been a readily available supply of calcium, sold at a low price as a byproduct of electricity generation by Santee-Cooper.

Pending changes in Federal legislation may force the big power cooperative to change the way they manage sulfur emissions, and long story short, may eliminate over 50,000 tons of calcium carbonate that goes into South Carolina peanut production.

If the company is forced out of the gypsum/calcium business, and politics being what they are in today’s society, this may or may not happen, it would cause many South Carolina peanut farmers to seek alternative sources of calcium.

Though there are other options for calcium to meet the demands for peanut production, the loss of the Santee-Cooper source would force South Carolina growers into a higher cost, higher risk production system, especially for Virginia type peanuts.

Prior to the dramatic rise in peanut production in South Carolina, Santee Cooper’s calcium carbonate was left in slurry form and sent to land-fills. In 2004, they obtained a license to manufacture and sell the solid form of calcium carbonate into the agricultural market.

One option is foliar calcium, but this is not a good option according to University of Georgia Soil Scientist Glen Harris. He says, “Let me make it clear that ‘foliar’ calciums are not recommended by UGA on peanuts since the material does not supply near enough calcium, and the calcium does not translocate through the leaves to the developing pods.”

Liquid calcium is another source, but also not nearly as cost effective as solid forms of calcium, like the Santee-Cooper product. Liquid calcium may come in one of several forms, including a simple combination of liquid lime and liquid gypsum in a suspension with water. Or, it can be used as calcium chloride or calcium thisosulfate.

Most critical nutrient

In runner and Virginia type peanuts, calcium is by far the most critical nutrient for achieving high yields and grades. Low levels of calcium causes several serious production problems, including unfilled pods (pops), pod rot disease, poor grades, darkened spots in the seed and poor germination.

Virginia-type peanut varieties are less able to take up adequate calcium than runner and Spanish types. This may simply be a matter of pod size, since there is less surface area on larger pods per unit weight of nut. For runner peanuts, the critical soil test level is 600 pounds of calcium per acre, but on Virginia type peanuts, yield and grade response occurs even at a soil test of 1,000 pounds of calcium per acre.  

Though glyphosate resistant pigweed isn’t routinely associated with peanut production, it is becoming an increasing problem as more and more families of herbicide — many of which are used in peanut production — fall victim to the prolific weed.

Much of South Carolina’s peanut acreage is grown in rotation with cotton or on land once used for cotton production. The combination can leave a big problem for peanut growers who once controlled the troublesome weed with herbicides to which pigweed has developed tolerance, or by chemicals put in voluntary restricted use by growers trying to save valuable weapons to fight the weed in other crops.

Pigweed is a big enough problem in South Carolina peanuts that Clemson University Peanut Specialist Jay Chapin says growers in high risk areas may want to stick with varieties that produce a lower growing bush, which will allow growers to come over the top with a wick bar to manage pigweed.

One such wicking device that has been used effectively in South Carolina is the Grassworks WeedWiper. It has a rotating drum that allows a grower to run the carpeted material very saturated, and therefore have a lot of chemical available to apply to the targeted weeds. Because the drum is rotating, target herbicides will not drip.

This machine applies chemicals to the bottom or underside of the leaves and stems, where the plants are going to be easier to kill. The drum height is adjustable, allowing growers to target pigweed that grows above the canopy of most peanut varieties.

Clemson University Weed Scientist Mike Marshall has used the machine on a number of crops with good success. Marshall says test results, using a research scale model of the commercially available machine has been good. He adds that a few farmers in South Carolina, who have used the commercial version of the machine have indicated having excellent results in controlling weed escapes in soybeans and peanuts.

He says, “The rates we’ve used are 50 percent gramoxone or paraquat and 50 percent water solution. A big advantage is that you are killing the top of the weed where seed production takes place, and with Palmer amaranth this is a big advantage because these weeds are such prolific seed producers,” Marshall notes.

Expectations are high

Despite these two potential bumps in the road for peanut production in South Carolina, the expectations are high for a continued increase in peanut production in the state over the next few years.

If the South Carolina Peanut Board and the South Carolina Peanut Growers Association are successful in attracting a major peanut shelling operation to the state, the growth potential is even better.

“2010 was a good year for peanuts for us — I’ll take it every year,” says Branchville, S.C., peanut grower Richard Rentz. Rentz, who is chairman of the South Carolina Peanut Board, says peanut growers in the state are trying to influence a sheller or shellers to build a facility in the state.

In neighboring North Carolina, peanut acreage has dwindled over the past decade from 126,000 acres to a low of 66,000 acres in 2009. Combined with Virginia, North Carolina produced well over 200,000 acres of peanuts as late 2000.

While some point the finger at the Palmetto state for dramatic reductions in peanut acreage in North Carolina and Virginia, that’s not a realistic cause for acreage cuts. Low peanut prices, high costs, especially for disease management, and emerging markets in cotton and grain forced many long-time Virginia-Carolina peanut growers away from the crop over the past decade.

Though contract prices for Virginia type peanuts may exceed $600 per ton, it isn’t likely even these high prices will entice many growers back into the volatile peanut market, which seems to go up and down on a regular cycle.

With cotton prices good and grain prices stable, growers in the northern end of the peanut producing belt seem to have better options over the next couple of years. If peanut prices remain stable for consecutive years, more growers are likely to invest in peanuts, bringing acreage back some in North Carolina and Virginia.

For 2011, if South Carolina growers can overcome some minor obstacles, this should be a good year for peanut production.

rroberson@farmpress.com