Peanut growers in North Carolina in 2008 and 2009 set a two-year record by averaging 3,700 pounds per years. While impressive, this record production was characteristic of every peanut producing state in the country.
Over the two-year period every major peanut producing state averaged better than 3,000 pounds per acre — the first time in history that has happened. An often asked question is, “if peanut production is good, why is peanut acreage going down.”
Peanuts were not the only crop that benefitted from back to back good crop seasons. Corn, a traditional rotation crop with peanuts, was good, with some growers in both years eclipsing 250 bushels per acre in some fields and averaging 200 bushels per acre on large acreage.
In fact, high producing corn, cotton and soybean crops in 2008 likely influenced many growers to reduce peanut acreage.
The 2008 and 2009 growing seasons were quite different and there was significantly less peanut acreage in 2009. Despite the differences, yield and quality remained much the same across the entire peanut producing belt during both years.
In North Carolina peanut acreage dropped 31,000 acres in 2009 to 66,000 acres.
There are plenty of reasons for the drop in acreage, but far and away the reduction is related to the price growers get for peanuts compared to other crops.
“When comparing back to yields in previous years, the improvement cannot be assigned to just one or two factors,” says veteran North Carolina State Peanut Specialist David Jordan.
“From an input standpoint, growers have more tools than ever. Certainly there are improvements in genetics — the Virginia market types we now grow have increased yield potential and offer better disease resistant packages than our earlier varieties,” Jordan notes.
Peanut growers also have more crop protection materials than ever, especially with respect to fungicides and herbicides. While there are some resistance issues with herbicides and some new fungicides are more expensive, these materials allow growers to protect peanut more effectively now than ever before.
“We can spend a great deal of money on these inputs, but the more tools we have the more flexibility we have, and these tools give farmers greater latitude than ever before in their management decisions,” Jordan says.
Crop protection is more efficient today than in past years, but it costs more. Likewise, high quality seed and good variety selection constitute expensive inputs, but provide growers more flexibility in planting varieties with resistance to specific diseases.
The largest variable in yield and quality suppression remains weather. Though the 2008 and 2009 growing seasons were different in both years the crop got water when it needed it most.
In North Carolina, for example, Jordan says, “While 2009 had more rainfall than 2008, rain in 2008 came about as perfectly timed as one could imagine, and in 2009 there was more than enough rain in most places to make an excellent crop.
“While 2009 was a struggle during harvest, this may have been a blessing in that some peanuts stayed in the field a little longer than normal and may have increased yield and improved grades,” he adds.
Though loss of peanut acreage can further stress rural economies in general and force growers to convert peanut land to other crops, there are some significant advantages to reduced acreage.
Probably the most significant benefit is leveling supply and demand. Simply put, there were too many peanuts in the pipeline and reducing acreage and increasing production from 2008 to 2009 didn’t do enough to get supply and demand back in balance.
In North Carolina, Jordan says one silver lining to reduced peanut acreage is that growers were able to stretch out the number of years between peanut plantings. Longer rotations almost always result in less disease pressure and subsequently higher yields. Longer rotation also helps in managing nematodes and generally provides a better soil environment for peanuts.
He also notes that reduced acreage to be grown on land better suited to peanut production.
A considerable amount of the yield loss associated with peanut production comes from the harvest process. Growing peanuts on well-suited, sandier soils will almost always result in a higher percentage of peanuts coming out of the ground intact and be available to the picker.
Some may question whether a portion of the decline in peanut acreage can be attributed to lack of management by growers, or more precisely growers paying more attention and being more timely on other crops deemed to be more lucrative than peanuts.
Jordan for one contends the drop in acreage has little to do with a drop in grower interest or the level of management skills. “Some growers have been able to improve their management of peanuts, and this has certainly allowed them to continue growing peanuts under tighter times with compressed prices. But, there are plenty of folks not currently growing peanuts who have always been excellent managers and certainly would be demonstrating those skills right now if they were growing peanuts,” Jordan says.
He adds that, “The foundation established in the past by many peanut producers in the upper Southeast has contributed a great deal to the record yields realized in recent years.”
Management may have contributed some to the decline in peanut acreage given tighter prices, but this is a small factor with respect to high peanut yields when compared with a greater number of tools to grow a crop, improved genetics, lower demand and its impact on increased rotation flexibility, movement to new production regions in the state with access to more suitable peanut soils, and of course weather, he adds.
As growers head into the 2010 season, the overwhelming factor in whether they plant peanuts or not will be if the contracts being offered around $525 per ton for Virginia types make financial sense for individual growers.
Regardless of management skills, availability of high quality peanut land and modern improvements in pest management and varietal options, the over-riding factor in how well peanuts compete for acreage in the upper Southeast will be price.