Alabama peanut farmer

When it came time for George Jeffcoat of Gordon, Ala., to choose his future career, he says it was a fairly easy decision.

“I grew up on a farm and worked summers and weekends while attending college, he says. “After college, my wife Gloria and I returned to the farm and started farming fulltime in 1971.”

Jeffcoat recalls that when he first started farming peanuts, they were on an allotment system, which limited the amount of acreage farmers could plant. As neighboring farmers retired and farms became available, he increased his peanut acreage.

Today, Jeffcoat farms 2,500 acres of peanuts, cotton, corn and wheat. Last year, he devoted 1,000 of his acres to peanuts, but it varies each year, depending on the contract price prior to planting season and his rotational needs.

According to the Alabama Peanut Producers Association (APPA), approximately half of all peanuts grown in the country are produced within a hundred-mile radius of Dothan, Alabama.

Alabama peanuts

Peanut History

The state has become a leading producer of peanuts in the last two centuries because of its optimal soil types, suitable climate, and the efficiency of peanuts as a crop rotation behind cotton.

“Most soils on my farm are well-drained sandy soils that can be farmed in a wide range of moisture conditions, which is ideal for peanut production,” Jeffcoat says. “Peanuts can tolerate a short drought and still produce a decent yield.”

But beyond the crop’s viability with the climate, Alabama farmers adopted this crop in the early 1900s after the boll weevil – a devastating pest that entered the U.S. from Mexico and affected the cotton crop – threatened their cotton harvests. Alabama cotton producers turned under their cotton plants and replaced them with other crops like corn and peanuts.

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Making the switch to peanut farming was a risky one for farmers of the early 1900s. Until that time, peanuts were only grown as livestock feed, a garden product and food for the poor. George Washington Carver, head of the agriculture department at Tuskegee Institute, released peanut research findings in 1916 that led to the development of more than 300 uses for peanuts and machinery that could harvest and shell the peanuts more efficiently.

Carver’s research also led to the practice of rotating peanuts with other crops, typically cotton, from year to year. The peanut is a legume, which is a plant that has nitrogen-fixing bacteria on its roots. Peanut plants add nitrogen back into the soil, which is an advantage for farmers who can then apply less fertilizer to the soil for a subsequent crop.

An additional benefit of peanuts grown in rotation with cotton is that the same planters can be used for both crops.

Alabama peanuts

Harvest and Marketing

Jeffcoat points out one significant difference between peanuts and his other row crops.

He says, “Peanuts need to be harvested in a timely manner that requires a lot of specialized equipment that can only be used in peanut harvesting.”

Peanut harvest is a two-step process. Since peanuts mature under the ground, the first step during harvest is to dig the peanut plant up, using specialized equipment called a digger. The digger has long blades that run four to six inches under the ground and detaches the plant from the tap root, shakes the dirt from the peanuts, rotates the plant and lays it back down on top of the soil. At this point, the peanuts are facing up and the leaves down, essentially upside down from how they grew. The peanuts must dry in the field for several days, then a peanut combine (also called a thresher) separates the pods from the vines. The pods are kept in a hopper on the combine, with the vines returned to the field to improve soil matter. Peanuts are transferred to wagons for further curing before being taken to a buying station for inspection and sales.

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Alabama peanuts

Farmers in southern Alabama have accessibility to peanut buyers and shelling facilities near the coast and near major cities such as Atlanta. Potentially, there are ways to market every part of the peanut plant, not just the peanuts themselves. Peanut shells are used in cat litter, fireplace logs and even particle board. The peanut plant can be baled and fed to livestock such as cattle and horses.

Jeffcoat is optimistic about the future of his industry.

“The future looks profitable for the industry,” he says. “The domestic consumption of peanuts is fairly level, with slight increases from year to year. Additional export markets will determine the future acreage of peanuts. With new promotion efforts and new peanut products, the demand could increase.”

2 COMMENTS

  1. I would like to know where I can peanuts in bulk from Alabama growers. Thank you Sheila Davis

  2. Hi Sheila,

    Thanks for your comment! We suggest you contact the Alabama Peanut Producers Association at (334) 792-6482 to find out where you might be able to buy peanuts in bulk. Hope this helps!

    Rachel Bertone
    Editor

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