South Carolina peanut growers shattered state acreage and total production records last year, but over-supply and expected low prices have many wondering how many acres to plant and more importantly, finding the best combination of acres and production to meet market needs.

Last year South Carolina growers harvested 107,000 acres, topping the previous record by 12,000 acres and for the first time in history surpassing peanut acreage in North Carolina.

Though peanuts are a relatively new crop in the state, the previous acreage record of 95,000 was set in 1943, when the majority of the crop was used to produce oil for the war effort and to feed hogs.

How many acres of peanuts will be planted in South Carolina this year is difficult, at best, to determine. Clearly, it won’t be 107,000 and it most likely won’t be close to 100,000 acres, and the best guess seems to be between 70,000 and 75,000 acres.

Whether a 30-35 percent reduction in acreage will be enough to prevent too many peanuts from going into the loan program, and ultimately selling for less than $400 per ton, is a big question growers should ask themselves before they decide how many peanuts to plant this year, says Virginia Peanut Marketing Specialist Dell Cotton.

Last year in March the USDA estimated the U.S. peanut crop to be 1.42 million acres. By August they upped the acreage to 1.49 million and estimated total production at 2.65 million tons. The final tally for the 2012 crop is 1.61 million acres and 3.38 million tons, Cotton says.

By comparison, the 10-year average for peanut production, prior to the 2012 crop, was only 2.2-2.5 million tons.

Every state in the Southeast planted higher acreage than the 10-year average, with South Carolina topping 100,000 for the first time and Florida topping 200,000 acres for the first time.

Not only did every state plant more peanuts, every state in the South also harvested more peanuts per acre than in any year in history — and by a wide margin, the Virginia marketing specialist says.

The Southeast belt and the Virginia-Carolina peanut producing belts averaged nearly 4,200 pounds per acre, which in some states topped previous yield per acre averages by nearly 1,000 pounds per acre.

The 2012 crop produced 1,555,000 more tons of peanuts than the 2011 crop.

Too many peanuts in 2012

“There are a lot of factors influencing the price of peanuts, but there is no over-coming the fact that we simply grew too many peanuts last year and our growers will probably pay for that production success with lower prices this year,” Cotton says.

“I feel confident there will be peanut contracts this year. However, these are likely to be for lower prices and restricted to lower tons than we’ve seen in recent years,” he adds.

South Carolina growers are more challenged by price than growers in neighboring peanut growing states.

For starters all the peanuts grown in South Carolina must be sold to shellers in Georgia, North Carolina or Virginia. The lack of shellers in the state remains a sore point for growers, but is one they can navigate, if supply and demand are in order and that’s not likely to be the case in 2013.

Recent peanut buys by the Chinese have raised optimism among peanut growers. In South Carolina optimism was high, evidenced by a huge grower turnout for the recent annual state Peanut Board meeting, held for the first time in Santee, S.C.

Speaking at the meeting, South Carolina Agriculture Commissioner Hugh Weathers commended the group for moving to a larger facility to accommodate an ever-increasing number of peanut growers in the state.

Weathers, who grows peanuts in partnership with his brother Landy and nephew Landrum Weathers, quipped, “I hope this place (Santee Convention Center) is big enough.”

Much of the South Carolina peanut crop is grown without the benefit of irrigation, which limits cropping options and helps to explain the dramatic growth in acreage over the past decade or so.

Typically, drops in peanut acreage in the Upper Southeast, including South Carolina, would mean more cotton acreage, but that’s not such a good option this year.

Switching from cotton-peanuts and corn to corn-wheat and soybeans simply isn’t an option for most South Carolina peanut growers.

Like peanuts, cotton acreage is projected to drop significantly in 2013. The recent 30th annual National Cotton Council planting intentions survey projects cotton acreage to fall in the Southeast by 18.5 percent from 2012 totals.

Growers listed corn, soybeans and ‘other crops’ as likely replacements for lost cotton acres.

Nationwide cotton acreage is expected to decline nearly 27 percent from 2012 totals.

Without irrigation on lighter, sandy soils that dominate the South Carolina peanut growing belt, corn is always a high risk crop. With corn prices down from historic high prices, the risk gets even bigger.

With irrigation, two ton per acre peanuts may still be better than 150 bushel per acre corn, if corn prices stay in the $5 per bushel range.

An obvious answer

One obvious answer for South Carolina growers is to grow fewer peanut acres and count on continued increases in production to add value per acre to the crop.

Prior to the 2012 crop, the state average yield was about 3,000 pounds per acre. Last year on more acres state growers produced 4,000 pounds per acre. The 25 percent increase in production would more than make up for a drop in price from $500 per ton to $400 per ton.

South Carolina Peanut Specialist Scott Monfort says growers in the state have more tools than ever before to increase production.

“Our growers grow about a 60-40 mix of Virginia type and runner type peanuts, and we have varieties in each that have proven to have high yield potential. We saw plenty of fields last year in the 6,000 pound per acre range,” Monfort says.

In variety tests at two sites in South Carolina, he had five runner type varieties average better than 5,000 pounds per acre. Florida 07, Georgia 09B, Georgia 06G, Georgia 07W and Florunner 107 all topped 5,000 pounds last year and each brings to the table several options to help growers overcome specific production challenges, he notes.

In addition, among runner types, under irrigation Georgia 06C has proven to be a top yielding variety.

As evidence of the high yielding potential of runner types in South Carolina, for the first time anyone can remember, runner types won the annual state yield contest.

Emmett Rouse, who farms near Luray, S.C., took top honors with more than 5,800 pounds per acre of Georgia Greener and Georgia 06G runner type peanuts.

Virginia type peanuts in South Carolina have even higher yield potential, Monfort says.

In variety testing last year, Georgia 11J, Bailey and Florida Fancy, all Virginia types, were pushing 6,000 pounds and most of the commonly grown varieties in the state topped 5,000 pounds per acre, the state peanut specialist says.

“Peanut growing conditions were excellent last year, and we don’t always get weather that good. Still, we have excellent varieties and excellent pest management systems, and our growers have learned how to grow high yielding peanuts, so there is no good reason we can’t increase the per acre value of peanuts in South Carolina,” Monfort adds.

(Regardless of how 2013 plays out, the peanut industry will continue moving forward. Setting goals is part of that progress and you can look into the future at Improving grower economics is National Peanut Board leader's goal).

rroberson@farmpress.com