It's a strange sight, driving south down Interstate 85, about halfway between Auburn and Montgomery, Ala. There, just off the highway, grow rows and rows of peanuts, in an area once reserved for cotton or the occasional corn crop.
Even though it was predicted that peanut acreage would shift with the demise of the decades-old government quota program, it's still something that'll take getting used to - bright green peanut plants hugging the ground where cotton stalks once stood tall.
It's a scene that's being repeated throughout the Peanut Belt, as acreage continues to shift away from traditional peanut-growing regions to fresh ground. And if you ask a peanut farmer if the change is a good one, the answer probably will depend on the location of his farm.
Six of the eight largest peanut-growing states either have seen a dramatic increase or a decrease in the acreage devoted to the crop since Congress scrapped the peanut quota system as part of the 2002 farm bill.
The Southeastern states of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina saw major boosts in the last two years. Less traditional peanut territories, such as Oklahoma, Texas and Virginia, reported big declines. There also was a modest peanut acreage reduction in Alabama and North Carolina, although the trend indicates these states soon could catch up to their pre-2002 totals.
“With the change in the program, many were predicting doom and gloom, that the peanut industry would just die out. That has not happened,” says Stanley Fletcher, coordinator of the University of Georgia's National Center for Peanut Competitiveness.
The 2002 farm bill compensated growers for giving up their quotas. The result was that many long-time peanut farmers got out of the business and many new ones got into it.
The land best suited for peanut production has prospered the most, providing a better product at better prices, contends Bob Redding, a lobbyist for the Georgia Peanut Commission. He says a flurry of new peanut products, such as peanut candies and peanut butter and jelly lunch pockets, proves the industry is on an upswing.
“The proof is in the product,” says Redding. “Peanut farmers in Georgia and the Southeast are planting more acres of peanuts, and there is a bigger national demand. We are getting more and more competitive in the world market.”
Georgia, the largest peanut-producing state, reported 614,250 acres devoted to peanuts in 2004 compared with an average of 521,268 acres for 1998 through 2001 — an 18-percent increase.
Meanwhile, Florida saw a 47-percent jump in peanut acreage. The largest increase came in South Carolina, which in 2004 nearly tripled its pre-farm bill average, from 11,057 acres to 33,083.
Much of South Carolina's acreage came at the expense of Virginia, which saw a drop in acreage of 57 percent, and North Carolina, which dropped by 40 percent. But the biggest hit came in the Southwest. Oklahoma reported the country's steepest decline in peanut acreage, from 83,338 before the farm bill to 31,233 after it — 63 percent overall.
Texas, the second largest peanut state after Georgia, saw a 40-percent drop, from 390,899 acres to 233,823.
On a national level, peanut acreage is down 8 percent in 2004 compared to the three-year average before the farm bill. However, the trend has been positive. Acreage is up 5.6 percent since 2003 and 4.2 percent since 2002.