Jimmy Oliver is a young peanut farmer who sums it up best for those in Virginia. “We're at a fork in the road… I just don't know which way to go.”

Pounded by a more than 20-percent acreage cut last year, and compounded by drought and tomato spotted wilt virus, Virginia peanut farmers will likely see an additional slide in acreage this year. In late March, the USDA pegged peanut planting intentions in Virginia at 35,000 acres, down from about 58,000 acres in 2002. This is the area where the commercial peanut producer is said to have first put down roots in the mid-1800s.

Some farmers have abandoned plans of growing peanuts in Virginia. Others will grow peanuts this year, but will do so at a reduced rate.

At the annual meeting of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association in Wakefield the other night, at least one producer introduced himself as an “ex-peanut grower.”

He wasn't sure if he was joking or not.

Lance Everett is a grower who's cutting back acreage. “There's a lot of uncertainty.” He says he and his son, Randy, will plan 325 acres of peanuts this year. Normally, they would plant about 500 acres. He'll likely put more acres in corn to improve the cotton rotation. He hasn't planted corn since the mid-1990s. He reports that he has signed a contract for $500 per ton on 3,500 pounds per acre, but doesn't see himself planting for under $500 a ton.

Everett's yields suffered under drought and disease stress last year. He averaged 1,800 pounds per acre. Yields on individual fields ranged from 500 pounds to 2,600 pounds per acre.

For Oliver, last year was a tough one as well. The 35-year-old farmer is taking an optimistic approach to the peanut situation, even though yields were off a third on 130 acres. He plans to plant the same amount of peanuts this year. He signed a $425-per-ton contract last fall for the 2002 crop.

“I'm going to stay in peanuts,” he says. “The reason I want to stay in peanuts is that we may have a new farm bill in four or five years and if they go by production history, then maybe I'll be in a good position.”

In the here and now, Oliver hasn't signed a contract as of yet. He feels a marketing alternative, such as a cooperative marketing association, is something growers need for their future.

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com