Study and understand your markets, get to know your customers, embrace technology and eliminate aflatoxin. All are keys to the future growth of the U.S. peanut industry, especially in the Southeast, says Ron Wolff, a Savannah, Ga., peanut broker.

"The American peanut farmer, with the technology and ability he currently possesses, sends the best and cleanest peanut in the world to shellers, and he does it on a regular basis," said Wolff, speaking at the Southern Peanut Growers Conference in Panama City, Fla.

But challenges remain, he adds, if the industry is to continue to grow. It's important, says Wolff, that growers under-stand who their customers are.

"Your customers are the shellers, manufacturers and consumers. If they don't want your product, you'll be out of the peanut farming business in short order. And the first thing your customers want is a clean peanut," he says.

Customers also want a readily processed peanut - one that stores well in cold storage, notes Wolff. In addition, customers are demanding a peanut with good flavor and with no aflatoxin.

"We can offer a clean peanut. It doesn't come in with dirt and clay on it. We also can produce a peanut with good flavor," he notes.

U.S. growers need help, says Wolff, in producing a more readily processed peanut. "Some segments of the industry have complained about the processing characteristics of the Georgia Green variety. They want a different peanut.

"And you need an aflatoxin-free peanut. In more and more of our markets, that's becoming a requirement. But growers don't have total control over that aspect of production."

If growers are to be successful in marketing, in both the world and American markets, they must know their competitors, he continues.

"The first competitor that comes to mind is Argentina, and they're a relative newcomer. They've come around in the last few years. They've developed an infrastructure, and they've got good topsoil, cheap chemicals and improved processing plants.

"They have good things going for them, but they also have weaknesses. In three of the past four years, their main weakness is that they can't get their peanuts in from the field. They have a poor harvesting system, a poor trucking system and it has cost them dearly."

Argentina will be working to make improvements in these problem areas, says Wolff, but it'll require a lot of time and money.

The other major competitor, he says, is China. "As we have moved into the 21st Century, China barely is moving into the 20th Century. They're making some strides, but basically it's a very rudimentary operation. Their cheap price is a strength, but some of their peanuts don't arrive very clean.

"Another weakness that showed up this past year was a high incidence of aflatoxin. This was totally unexpected by the world community, and it surprised the Europeans."

Turning to the current market, Wolff says domestic peanut demand has been stable from 1996 through 1999. "We've had a fairly stable domestic market over the past four years, with some increase, and that's good news for farmers."

The size and quality of the 2000 crop will help determine the future direction of the domestic market, says the broker. "If the crop is a good and normal crop, domestic demand will continue to increase. It'll provide peanuts to the domestic market, and we should be able to continue that upward trend.

"If the crop is very poor with low quality, prices will go up because people will pay a premium for better quality. And when prices go up, demand will go down. It's not a situation that any of us want.

He doesn't anticipate widespread use of the buyback program this year unless the Southeast crop is very poor. "Then, we may see buybacks out of the West as shellers scramble to find peanuts for the domestic market. At this stage of the game, I would expect the buyback to be relatively small."

Looking at the export market, Wolff sees a different situation. "We've gone from a relatively stable offtake in the international market to one that exploded in 1999. As a result, shellers have an inventory, and they're going to buy fewer peanuts this year."

He says the availability of peanuts from China also will affect exports. "These are cheap peanuts, but the Chinese farmers had a lot of crop problems early, and they also have the aflatoxin problems. If they have a big crop, they can come in and buy the market.

Aflatoxin, says Wolff, has become the primary issue in the international market.

"We're finding, as an industry, that it's extremely difficult to market peanuts to Europe because of aflatoxin. This especially hurts farmers in the Southeast.

"Aflatoxin must be eliminated - that's the growers' greatest peril in the Southeast. We have trade agreements that will allow more peanuts to come into this country. Those peanuts are going to come into this country without aflatoxin."

Growers should work through their commodity groups and other associations to insure that researchers know the importance of eliminating aflatoxin, says Wolff. "As a Southeastern peanut grower, you must get rid of aflatoxin to survive in the future."

Growers also must embrace technology, he adds. "We're the best peanut farmers in the world today, and we've reached this point through technology. Keep abreast of technology. It should move us ahead of our competitors, even faster in the future than in the past."

As cotton producers reach the end of another difficult season, what can they do to salvage the most dollars out of their crop?

With high nighttime temperatures, respiration increases, which results in a shortage of carbohydrates. During peak bloom, the developing bolls have a high carbohydrate requirement. Increased respiration depletes the plant of these carbohydrates. The plant is forced to ration carbohydrates by adjusting the boll load through boll shed and reduced boll size - resulting in lower yield.

High temperatures can affect fiber quality, specifically micronaire, in two ways:

Each daily ring of cellulose that is deposited will be thicker, resulting in fibers that are thicker with increased micronaire. Fibers also can be shorter. This can result in a higher concentration of cellulose in the fibers, which will increase micronaire values.

The boll-setting period also can be shortened, decreasing the number of immature late-season bolls with lower micronaire that could have been blended with the older, higher mike bolls. The loss of these top bolls also can result in higher micronaire values.

If the stress from heat or drought is rapid and severe, there may not be enough time to shed all the bolls that can't be supplied carbohydrates. The result will be inferior fiber that has reduced micronaire, strength and potentially shorter fiber.

Here are a few things you can do in the future to improve quality:

- Enhance fiber quality by applying enough water.

- Make timely irrigation applications.

- Avoid drought stress during peak bloom to reduce chances of premature cutout.

- Reduce drought stress during first three weeks of boll development by watering well.

- Make insect control a priority - a well-balanced boll set will even out quality variations.