The U.S. Department of Agriculture raised eyebrows in the peanut industry on March 30 when it projected that American peanut growers would plant the smallest acreage in nearly 100 years.

That projection, which appeared in its “Prospective Plantings 2007” report, put national planted area at just under 1.2 million acres. The last time fewer acres than that were planted was in 1915.

But a month later, the estimate seemed consigned to the scrap heap because of unexpected developments in the field, especially in Georgia.

The USDA projected planted acreage in the leading peanut state at 500,000 acres, down 14 percent from last year. That would be the most drastic drop in relative terms of any of the states.

But weather events in April made the USDA projection seem very shaky.

“When the prospective plantings report was released, its projection for Georgia peanuts was very credible,” says John Beasley, University of Georgia Extension peanut specialist. “But since then, it has been dry and cold in peanut areas in Georgia, and we think some corn that farmers intended to plant didn't get planted. Now, some of the land that had been set aside for dryland corn may go into peanuts instead.”

He thinks Georgians will plant more peanuts than the USDA projected. How much more? “Maybe up to 520,000 to 525,000 acres.”

As of the last week of April, peanut planting had barely gotten under way in Georgia, Beasley said.

“It has been very cold,” he says. “Plantings have taken place in the southwest corner of the state, and that was the week after Easter.”

Moisture conditions have also interfered with plantings.

“This year has been characterized by some of the driest conditions for the end of April that we have ever had, especially from Albany east,” says Beasley, who added glumly that a record for dry weather in a spring may be set this year in south Georgia.

The one bright spot is that parts of Georgia west of Albany got some rain in early April. “But that moisture is gone now,” said Beasley at the end of the month.

There is a legislative question that could confuse the plantings picture further. There is no federal legislation in place at the present time that would provide government funding to cover storage and handling fees for loan stocks from the 2007 crop.

There have been efforts to get these fees covered in the appropriations bill now being considered by Congress, but it hadn't happened as of the end of April.

“So farmers may be responsible for that cost if their peanuts go under loan,” says Beasley. “This would amount to $50 to $60 per ton, which is a lot under a $415 per ton contract. Some farmers might shy away from peanuts under the circumstances.”

But while Georgia farmers may exceed the federal projection, Texas farmers might fall short.

The USDA had estimated acreage of 190,000, up 123 percent from 155,000 acres in 2006. But at the end of April, Todd Baughman, Texas Extension peanut specialist, told Southeast Farm Press that he would “really be surprised” if the growers of his state plant that much.

“It is too high,” he said of the estimate. “I only expect about the same as last year. If there is an increase, it might only be up to 10 percent higher. I don't think there is any way we can get to 23 percent.”

Projecting plantings is not an exact science and never will be, says Baughman. “If you look at the numbers from last year, it is clear that for the USDA projection (of 190,000 acres) to come about, substantial new land would have to come into peanut production. I don't think anyone in Texas foresees that happening.”

Contract prices are better than last year but there was nevertheless some frustration among farmers, says Baughman. “I can't say farmers are overly excited about peanuts right now.”

The attraction of current grain prices is putting uncertainty into the peanut market, says Baughman. “But in some parts of our peanut production area, it is not easy to swap between peanuts and grain. Cotton prices are in the doldrums, and that is throwing us into more of a quandary.”

There was some hope that pressure on contract prices would cause them to inch up, but that hasn't happened yet, he says.

Planting began in west Texas the last week of April and was expected to get under way in earnest in early May over much of the state, says Baughman. There were good rains all winter and spring which should take some of the pressure off irrigation requirements, he adds.

Baughman doesn't expect any surprises in variety choice.

“If anything changes at all, it will be that we might see a small increase in plantings of Virginia type peanuts,” he says. “But even then, there won't be any major shifts among types grown in this state, which in 2006 was 62 percent runners, 15 percent Spanish, 13 percent Virginias and 9 percent Valencia.”

Beasley expects the same distribution of types as last year in Georgia. “We have had 98 percent of our acreage in runners in the last few years,” he says. “There will be a few Virginias and a very few Valencias.”

The largest predicted relative increase in plantings in the USDA report was not in Texas but instead one of the smaller states, Virginia, where the 25,000 acres projected was 41 percent over actual plantings in 2006.

But in this state too, by the end of April, the projection seemed questionable. There is no doubt that Virginia farmers are anxious to get back into peanuts but Joel Faircloth, Virginia Tech Extension peanut specialist, says he would be surprised if 25,000 acres is planted. “I would estimate 21,000 to 22,000 acres, which would be about a 25 percent increase.”

He says that all the increase will probably be in Virginia types, with runners continuing to make up 10 percent or less of the state crop.

The USDA Prospective Planting Projection in March indicated plantings in Virginia and the Carolinas would be 178,000 acres, nearly 11 percent more than 2006; 797,000 acres in Georgia, Florida, Alabama and Mississippi, down 10 percent from last year, and 222,000 acres in Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, up 17 percent from last year.