Sampson County isn't exactly the heart of peanut country in North Carolina. But it's a county that will see an increase in peanut acres in a year in a transition year. Jart Hudson is one of the producers in the county looking at an increase in peanut acres.

Increases are also expected in Chowan, Perquimans, Gates and Martin in the northeastern part of North Carolina as well as traditional counties in the southeastern part of the state.

Traditional areas that could take a hit in the long-term may also see increases in peanut acres this year.

Statewide, growers intend to plant some 90,000 acres, an 11 percent cut from 2002. Contracts around the $500 per ton level appear to be driving the increases in certain traditional counties as well as non-traditional peanut counties in North Carolina. “The year 2003 is one of transition,” says Blake Brown, North Carolina State University Extension ag economist.

For Hudson of Turkey, N.C., the last two years have been tentative ones at best. Like other producers, he's concerned about what's going to happen in the short-term and long-term regarding peanuts.

In both the short and long-term, Hudson sees himself continuing to grow peanuts.

He's sitting in the cab of his pickup truck in mid-April watching the transplanting of tobacco, another crop in transition. Peanut planting is about a month off, but still an important topic of conversation.

“This year, I'll plant anywhere from another 50 to 100 acres of peanuts,” Hudson says. Last year, he planted 150 acres, and averaged in the “high” 3,000s despite drought and disease problems.

He's working his way through the transition of the old and the new and has signed a contract for the 2003 crop.

A cotton, corn and tobacco producer, Hudson is used to receiving the Loan Deficiency Payment (LDP). Under the terms of the peanut contract he signed, however, the sheller will get the LDP instead of the producer. “I'm not certain that was the way Congress anticipated it working, but I signed a contract.” He plans to grow about 2,000 acres of cotton this season, along with 200 acres of tobacco. It's been difficult to squeeze in corn planting this year due to the prolonged rains.

While readying his equipment for the new season, Hudson points out the specific nature of peanut production, one of the reasons he cites for expansion. “Any peanut equipment is specific to the crop,” he says. “Combines and diggers to the curing of peanuts.”

In the past, he left the peanuts in the field to dry in the windrow for a few days after digging and finished up the job at the buying point in Elizabethtown, about 50 miles away. Because of the distance and cost, Hudson is looking at installing on-farm curing facilities.

Peanuts are a fixture on this second-generation farm and in the past several years, Hudson has been recognized as one of the top peanut producers in North Carolina. “We feel like we've got to make a two-ton yield to survive,” he says. “Anything below 2,000 pounds won't be able to compete in this type of market.” He says under the new program producers have to be more efficient to survive.

To maintain yields of more than 3,000 pounds per acre, Hudson uses a four- to five-year rotation in concert with corn and cotton.

He prefers NC-V 11 but also plants Perry. Last year, he planted in mid-May. This year he's paying closer attention to planting date and variety selection since tomato spotted wilt has become more of a concern in the V-C area over the past several years. Most of his peanuts this season, however, will go into new land, and he'll likely reap the benefit of reduced disease pressure.

“The rotation depends on the price you get,” Hudson says. “If you're not getting enough, you might as well rotate it with corn because corn is less labor intensive and costs less to produce.” The new program gives Hudson the chance to make peanuts work in the rotation.

This is a year of transition, Brown says. Already, he points to acreage increases “where we expected them to occur under the new bill.” Counties such as Chowan, Perquimans, Gates, Bertie and Martin are likely to see increases.

In Northhampton, Halifax and Edgecombe counties, there will probably be a decline in acreage.

“There are a lot of $500 contracts out there and that seems to be driving some of the increase in acreage, even in those counties where we may see a decrease in the long-term,” Brown says.

“My notion is that we'll also see an increase in southeastern North Carolina and some new producers in counties such as Duplin and Sampson,” Brown says.

The North Carolina State University ag economist says even with the LDP going to the sheller, producers still have a $450-$475 contract. “That's still above where I expect the price to be when everything shakes out,” Brown says.

The contract price indicates a feeling-out period among shellers as well. “I really don't think shellers have adjusted to what the equilibrium will be between Texas and the Virginia-Carolina area,” Brown says. “The $500 contracts are wonderful, but you have to wonder if that's not going to entice more Virginia production in Texas. It's an indication to me that we haven't landed yet in terms of acres and price.”

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com