Working with peanuts and peanut farmers won’t be anything new for Scott Monfort, the new South Carolina Peanut Specialist.

He grew up in Arlington, Ga., and has worked with cotton and peanuts most of his life.

Monfort, housed at Clemson University’s Edisto Agricultural Research and Extension Center in Blackville, S.C., is replacing long-time Peanut Specialist Jay Chapin.

Montfort began his agriculture career in southwest Georgia, working for former Georgia cooperative giant Gold Kist. He cut his professional teeth in precision agriculture, and will bring some new insights on the use of precision technology to South Carolina peanut farmers.

The new South Carolina peanut specialist moved from Gold Kist to the Georgia Cooperative Extension System, working in Worth County in the heart of the state’s peanut belt. At the time, he had an agricultural degree from the University of Georgia and says working with Extension specialists there inspired him to further his degree.

He subsequently got interested in peanut disease management and earned a masters degree, working with long-time University of Georgia Plant Pathologist Albert Culbreath.

“It was clear to me working with farmers in and around Sylvester, Ga., that precision agriculture would be an important part of the future of farming. Working with the Georgia Extension Service also helped me understand the importance of managing nematodes in peanuts and cotton,” Monfort says.

Getting a masters degree, he adds, further inspired him to continue his education, but finding the right university to suit his interest wasn’t easy. 

He ended up at the University of Arkansas, working on precision agriculture and nematode management — critical issues he had faced as an Extension agent in Georgia.

After completing his degree, he worked for five years as a state plant pathologist in Arkansas. He worked on multiple crops, even some with peanuts, during his tenure in Arkansas.

Common throughout his academic studies has been a keen interest in plant diseases. “Historically diseases have been a limiting factor on peanut yield, so I’m looking forward to continuing  to help growers manage disease problems,” he says.

Precision agriculture in peanuts

“I hope we can move more into precision agriculture in peanuts. I’m interested in looking at the agronomic practices our growers are currently using and trying to come with some new ways to enhance some of things growers are already doing,” he says.

Peanuts are likely to reach record prices in 2012, and the new South Carolina peanut specialist says it will be critical to be more efficient and manage problems that occur during the growing season in an efficient way, without over-spending.

“If we can make a good crop, year in and year out, we can achieve sustainability for peanuts in South Carolina. A small percentage of South Carolina peanuts are irrigated and drought management is a constant concern. We have to work with Mother Nature to achieve this sustainability,” Monfort says.

“South Carolina peanut farmers already do a great job with GPS guided planting, spraying and digging, and there may be some ways to fine-tune those practices. We could also look at using some of the new precision technology to likewise fine-tune pesticide application,” he adds.

“In situations in which we have nematode problems, we have proven we can improve yields and maximize the efficient use of chemicals used to manage nematodes in other crops.

“Even with some soilborne diseases, especially seedling-type diseases, we can potentially do some variable rate applications at or immediately after planting of fungicides.

“The sky is the limit with precision agriculture, but it has to make money for the grower. There are plenty of things we could do with technology to make production practices work, but many of them simply aren’t practical for farmers,” Monfort says.

The growth of the peanut industry in South Carolina is an agriculture industry success story that came at a critical time when the state was badly in need of economic successes.

Large acreage increase

When the Federal Peanut Program ended in the early 2000s, South Carolina had a scant few thousand acres of production. This year South Carolina peanut farmers will likely dig close to 70,000 acres.

A big part of the success of South Carolina peanuts has been attributed by growers to the leadership provided by Clemson Peanut Specialist Jay Chapin and his Research Assistant James Thomas. 

Though Chapin shuns the spotlight and attributes the success of peanuts in the state to the diligence of peanut growers, there is little doubt he played a key role in the agriculture success story of peanuts in South Carolina.

Replacing a legend is never easy, but Monfort says working with Chapin this growing season (he took over as peanut specialist in June) has been a big plus. Chapin, though retired, will stay on for the 2012 season to finish projects and to help Monfort get more acclimated to his new role.

“Having Jay stay on next season allows me to take a look from the outside and determine how I can add to the outstanding program that he has going here at the Edisto Center.

“I think it’s important to get a good understanding of what growers need and to have some time to figure out some ways to improve on the things they are already doing,” Monfort says.

Branchville, S.C., peanut farmer and head of the South Carolina Peanut Board, Richard Rentz says Chapin will be missed.

“You just don’t lose that kind of knowledge and dedication without feeling the loss, but we feel like we have a great scientist and a great person in Scott Monfort to continue the work Jay has started, and we are looking for great things from him in the future,” Rentz says.

As a testament to Chapin’s value to South Carolina peanut growers, several groups in the state banded together to buy him a John Deere four-wheel ATV, commonly called a ‘gator’.

Despite nearly a year of fund-raising, the ATV was a total surprise for Chapin, when he was presented the gift at a recent field day at the Edisto Research Center.

“It’s been a joy and a pleasure to work with farmers in South Carolina all these years — a real privilege. And, it’s been a special time working with peanut growers and seeing the industry take off over the past few years. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing,” Chapin said in accepting the gift.

rroberson@farmpress.com