Monday, November 13, 2006

Peanut farmers improvise as crop decline continues

By LINDA MCNATT, The Virginian-Pilot
© November 11, 2006
Last updated: 9:17 PM

ISLE OF WIGHT COUNTY - When the 2002 Farm Bill eliminated a decades-old peanut growing system, the price farmers got for Virginia's gourmet goobers plummeted to $355 a ton from $610 a ton.

There's been nothing gradual about the collapse. Peanuts went from being planted on 75,000 acres in the state before the Farm Bill to about 16,000 acres this year.

Most local farmers decided they just couldn't make money on Virginia peanuts, but there are still devotees who hope peanuts will make a return. They are also holding out hope for a runner-type peanut.

Because of development across the state, Virginia probably no longer has the land to ever again support 75,000 acres.

"But I still feel we can move back up," said Del Cotton, director of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association. "Farmers like to grow what they know. Peanuts are ingrained in their system."

In Isle of Wight County this year, the Byrum family planted 50 acres, a tradition that 73-year-old Roland Byrum has insisted on since his son Cecil sold most of their peanut harvesting equipment.

"Use to be, peanuts was my livelihood," the elder Byrum said. "My daddy grew them. My granddaddy grew them. Time was, we had over 200 acres on this farm."

This year, he pulled runner peanuts from the soil, smaller than their Virginia cousins and used in candy.

"The ones we're growing this year look like soybeans," he sai d. "Won't be anymore on this farm."

The runners take about three weeks longer to mature, so the nuts must stay in the ground longer. That made the harvest later than ever this year. An overabundance of rain in the p ast several weeks added to the problems. Some peanut fields were still so wet at the beginning of November that there was little hope they would ever be dug up.

Bubba Crocker and his brother Peter Frank have held on to the peanut tradition.

"We planted 175 acres this year, and it should have taken us about 10 days to harvest," he said. "It's taken us four weeks. We have grown as high as 525 acres, but we'll never see that again."

John Brock Jr. still grows peanuts in Surry County. He has a small shop in Bacon's Castle and a Virginia peanut distributorship. Brock hasn't grown runners, and he doesn't intend to do so.

"We're having to buy peanuts for the shop right now and will probably have to the rest of the year," he said. "I can remember when I planted 250 acres. We have 17 acres this year.

"Runners? Those things would grow on concrete. The Virginia peanut is still superior."

Dee Dee Darden, an Isle of Wight farmer who is actively promoting peanuts with the National Peanut Council, grew 170 acres this year. She and her husband, Tommy, grew about half Virginia-type and half runners. The runners did well.

"We're still growing peanuts because we can make more money on an acre of peanuts than we can make on anything else," she said.

"The way it looks right now, I may end up loving runners more than I ever thought I would."

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