Todd Lewis is a self-professed peanut man. He loves growing peanuts, knows how to grow them, and has an office full of trophies to prove it. The keys, he says, are timing from planting to harvest, having good people to help in planning and execution and strong spiritual faith to get you through the hard times.
These are some of the reasons Lewis was named the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner for the Upper Southeast.
Hard work also factors into the equation. He and his father cleared much of the land that is the heart of Indian Neck Farms, which is in Gatesville, tucked into the northeast corner of North Carolina and only 30 miles or so from Suffolk, Va.
“My father was in the lumber business, but had grown up on a farm. He had a dream of starting a farm. Back in the early 1970s we were clearing 100 acres of land a year. After a few years he hired a farm manager and began growing grain crops. I grew up hanging out with the farm manager and developed a love for farming. Early on I knew farming was what I wanted to do,” Lewis says.
The keys to being profitable he says, starts with faith. “I see some people who are always crunching numbers and that can be good, but in farming there are too many unknowns. At some point, you just have to have faith in God, what you are doing, and the people who help you,’’ Lewis says.
Timeliness is the No. 1 thing that is critical to growing peanuts, he says. “I wouldn’t even attempt to grow peanuts without my crop consultant, Webster Harrell. He keeps track of our peanuts and tells me the precise time to spray, to fertilize, to dig, and that is critical information. Without that outside insight, I would tend to do everything too soon and that can cost you money on the front and back end of a crop,” Lewis says.
“Sclerotinia is a big challenge for us and staying on top of that is absolutely critical. If we can spray it when it first starts, we have a chance, otherwise it is tough to manage. Once you are behind, you are behind for the whole crop season and once you have lost that yield, you can never get it back,” he adds.
“I believe in cutting corners to save costs, when it can be done without cutting yield. If I know it will pay, I will do it, and I’m sure I’m not growing peanuts as cheap as I could, but I feel like everything I do adds to the overall profitability of peanuts,” Lewis says.
“One cost cutting measure we have looked at with Webster is delaying our first leafspot spraying. If we can do that, some years we may eliminate one spray. We feel like the last spray is much more important than the first one. Once that first spray is done, you are pretty much locked into your program. With Sclerotinia, we spray when Webster tells us to spray. In some years not spraying for Sclerotinia or delaying that first leafspot spraying can pay for the cost of a good crop consultant,” Lewis contends.
In fields with Schlerotinia, Omega is the fungicide of choice for Lewis. “When Omega is used, it creates a different management schedule. It is expensive, but it controls white mold and other problems, so you only need to control leafspot in those fields,” Lewis says. Because so much of his land is relatively new, Lewis says he probably has less Sclerotinia pressure than most farmers in his area.
Some contend that Schlerotinia put more people out of the peanut business than did changes in peanut legislation. “At nearly $40 per application and up to three applications per year, using Omega to manage Schlerotinia is a costly proposition. Other than Sclerotinia, we can compete with any area of the country in growing peanuts profitably,” Lewis says.
After earning a degree in Agricultural Equipment Technology from North Carolina State University in 1984, he returned to the farm and began building one of the state’s most successful farming operations. Mechanics has been a big asset on the farm — we do all our own work on farm equipment, he says.
Having cleared most of their farm land, they didn’t have much of a peanut allotment. Lewis started out growing 50 acres of peanuts and quickly bumped that up to 300 acres. When the peanut program went away, he bumped his acreage up to 600 acres.
“When we increased our acreage from 300 to 600 acres our yields dropped from 5,100 to 5,200 pounds per acre to 4,700-4,800 pounds per acre. It was easier to hit the 5,000 pound per acre yield on 300 acres than to produce 4,800 on 600 acres, which we have done for the past three years,” Lewis says.
The reason for the drop in yield, he says, is dropping back from a four-year to a three-year rotation. Corn, cotton and peanuts has produced good yields, but not as good as adding a second year of corn in the rotation, he contends. “I only cut back the rotation on land that I know is good, sandy peanut land,” he adds. Marginal peanut land has a longer rotation, he explains.
In addition to his peanuts, Lewis grows 1,000 acres of cotton, 600 acres of soybeans and 600 acres of corn. “I plant corn behind peanuts to rob the extra nitrogen that peanuts leave. I don’t really like cotton in the rotation, but I know it’s better than soybeans. On our sandy land, it’s hard to be competitive with grain, but I feel like corn is essential to a good peanut rotation,” Lewis says.
“I don’t chase the markets. I plant what the land will grow best. On land that will grow corn, I plant corn and beans. I increased my corn acreage slightly this year, but when you factor in the added cost of producing corn it’s not going to be a great financial advantage. For example, I just bought 27-0-9 side-dressing to fertilize my corn and that cost $330 a ton or about twice what it cost last year. Then you add the fuel to irrigate corn and other costs, and I don’t see it as being any more profitable than it was at $2.80 per bushel,” Lewis says.
Over the years peanuts have been his staple crop. “I know what price I’m going to get when I plant peanuts. So the only variable is yield. Since we have some land that hasn’t been in peanuts for long periods of time, I believe that with Gods’ blessing, and the people I have to help me, along with experience we have together, I am hopeful we can produce better than 4,500 pounds per acre and that will be profitable for us,” Lewis notes.
The North Carolina grower plants Gregory, Perry and Wilson varieties, and last year planted some Champs. Wilson, he says, has been a consistently good variety that mature early, pods hold well at digging time, and they seem to perform better on non-irrigated land.
Gregory has a high percentage of extra large kernels and they seem to handle tomato spotted wilt virus better than other varieties. “If tomato spotted wilt wasn’t an issue, Perry would probably be the best variety we could plant, because of their resistance to Cylindrocladium black rot (CBR) and high yield potential,” Lewis says.
CBR and Sclerotinia blight are two disease problems that cost North Carolina and Virginia growers more money than some growers in the other peanut producing belts spend on all pest management problems. Lewis has to use Vapam or similar soil sterilizing materials on about 75 percent of his land.
I take a little different approach to managing CBR. I plant twin rows, which would cost $45-$50 per acre for Temik, so I don’t use Temik. I use Orthene in a tank-mix with Lift in the furrow. Orthene costs about $14 per acre. I use the money I save on Temik for gas. I need the gas for CBR, and I get better control of nematodes and Orthene takes care of thrips, Lewis explains.
A few years back, Lewis moved to twin row plantings, which allows him to increase seeding rate on some varieties, especially Perry. This provides better ground coverage and gives plants more room to spread out and produce more limb crop. “It allows plants to spread out on our sandy soil and plant competition is reduced,” he says.
The twin rows are planted on 38-inch rows with two separate Monosem air planters that are staggered to produce two nine-inch rows. With this system he can plant 145 to 160 pounds of seed per acre.
Getting the right vine growth is critical when planting twin rows, he says. “Getting it too thick can create a digging and disease nightmare. Getting the plants thin enough will allow better sunlight penetration, but too light will take away yield”, he says. “The amount of vine growth on Virginia types on the rich sandy soils in his area can be unbelievable, if the plants aren’t properly managed,” he adds.
He prepares his peanut land by applying a 5-15-30 or similar ratio fertilizer blend, disking and bedding. He applies a quart of Prowl per acre behind the disk to manage grass and small-seeded weeds. Then he levels the land with field cultivators, rows it up and applies gas at least two weeks prior to planting. Most of his peanuts are planted by mid-May.
In the past decade, Lewis has won the State Yield Championship four times, and his farm office is lined with county yield awards. Though he produces top yields in other crops, peanuts are his favorite.