Are they nuts? Southern researchers and farmers tackle organic peanuts.
High demand for full-flavored organic peanuts drives new collaboration to surmount weed, disease and processing challenges in the Southeast.

By Leeann Culbreath

Peanut forage opens options

"Cattle forage well on peanuts,” says farmer Robin Fazio in southwest Georgia. He rotates bahia grass and cattle with his peanuts in a reduced-pesticide, conservation-till system that yields around 2 tons per acre. He may incorporate organic peanuts into his system in the future, if his initial attempt on 23 acres succeeds.

Cattle and poultry enterprises look like promising alternative rotations to make organic peanuts sustainable, possibly including millet or forage crops that could provide dual soil and livestock benefits.

Processing, premiums and potential

Farmers in the Southeast need to find out if selling organic peanuts for $1 per pound – about double the conventional price – will create a sustainable crop.

Producers want to gain confidence in their seed and pest management costs to calculate an estimated enterprise budget – and the price they will need to be economically sustainable.

At the USDA Peanut Lab, ag economist Marshall Lamb is carefully tracking expenses for both organic and conventional peanut-cotton experiments. After three years—the end of 2006—an economic analysis will determine what price would make Southern organic peanuts profitable. The average production costs for conventional irrigated peanuts total $550 an acre. Non-irrigated, it’s $450. Lamb calculated $700 an acre for his first experimental plots last year, most of it labor costs for weed control. Yield was above average compared to conventional—about 3,400 pounds per acre.

Even if the price is right, there aren’t any processors in the South certified to shell organic peanuts, but some conventional processors have expressed interest.

“We hope to work with processors to help them through the certification process, which is the biggest hurdle,” consultant Mark Boudreau said. He and other advocates are contacting small businesses that went belly-up as the processing industry consolidated.

Observers are hoping the quality and consistency of Southeast organic peanuts will let them compete with certain competition from China.

Putting new cultivars to the test

Click here for more on how the new USDA breeding line may also help farmers with weed control.

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Click here for additional information on researchers, farmers, processors and advocates involved in organic peanuts.


November 10, 2005: “Growing peanuts is hard. Growing organic peanuts is really hard,” weed researcher Dr. Carroll Johnson says as he scans his checkerboard of test plots in south Georgia. He stoops down to pull a blade of Texas panicum, a pernicious grass, from a lush mat of crimson clover and peanut seedlings. He’s watching his crew use a flame-weeder to at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton, Georgia.

Using that tool is one of many experiments Johnson has conducted in recent years to help Southern farmers break into a market that is growing like … well, like a weed. Chuck Schmidt, who works in peanut butter sales and marketing, conservatively estimates a supply shortfall of 8-10 million pounds this year for just his processed product. Because Southeastern peanuts are notoriously flavorful and large, the lucrative snack and health-food market also beckons.

While the Deep South produces 75 percent of U.S. peanuts, most organic peanuts are grown in the Southwest. There, the arid climate makes organic production easier than in the Southeast—a region where weeds and disease spread faster than rumors of whiskey on a Baptist’s breath.

Sporadic attempts at organic peanut research and small-scale production in the 1990s didn’t take hold. In 2004, farmer Shirley Daughtry in Effingham County, Georgia, near Savannah, produced the only known commercially-grown certified organic peanuts in Georgia—a quarter acre, compared to 675,000 acres in conventional production where they are grown in rotation with cotton and corn.

In 2003, however, Carroll Johnson began his research, and joined with other researchers to form relationships with farmers and the non-profit Georgia Organics. This year, approximately 40 on-farm and research acres are in production in Georgia, South Carolina, and North Carolina, supported largely by a new three-year $160,000 SARE grant. Grant coordinator Dr. Mark Boudreau, a sustainable farming consultant, says this is the ideal time to try organic peanuts in the South. “There’s a unique convergence of factors: the availability of new varieties, increased peanut acreage in general, high demand for organics, and generally low prices for conventional peanuts.”

Conservation tillage: Fertile ground for organics?

Horticulturalist Dr. Sharad Phatak hopes his 20 years of work on conservation tillage in Georgia will provide fertile ground for a transition to organic peanuts. Phatak began experiments with no-till peanuts in the early 1990s after a decade of conservation tillage work in vegetable crops. In 1990, his first no-till, pesticide-free peanuts planted into rye yielded well. He experimented with crimson clover as well, again with positive results. His peanuts developed well, despite fears that having peanuts (a legume) follow a leguminous cover crop would lead to disease problems or nematodes.

Other researchers, including Johnson, are now experimenting with cover crops and organic peanuts, primarily for weed control, integrating new herbicides and other techniques into their experiments. Early in his learning curve with conservation tillage, Johnson tried to control annual grasses, nutsedge, and morning glories by strip-tilling peanuts into mowed rye. The weeds emerged with a vengeance in the row, right where he couldn’t get them.

He then undertook no-till experiments with crimson clover, a winter annual. Once the clover dried down, his crew flail-mowed it and planted C-11-2-39, a new cultivar developed by Dr. Corley Holbrook, a USDA peanut geneticist in Tifton. The cultivar spreads well, shading many weeds with a thick canopy. It has also demonstrated excellent germination and strong disease resistance. “I was amazed. This variety was able to survive and thrive after an attack of fungus,” farmer Shirley Daughtry said.

An unusually wet season continuously sprouted an impossibly thick mat of self-reseeded clover that shaded out weeds early in the season and gave the peanuts a strong start. Grasses poked through in time, though, and created a formidable jungle. Even so, Johnson says the clover plots could yield decently and they showed the most promise for economically viable weed control overall. “The less soil disturbance, the better, it seems,” he said. His crew hand weeded twice— an inevitability for organic peanuts, Johnson thinks.

Last year, researchers at the USDA National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Georgia, began experimenting with no-till organic peanuts and cotton in an oat cover crop, which created a punishing weed problem. This year, the peanuts went into rye and the cotton into a rye-clover mix to add nitrogen to the soil. They planted in single rows and rolled the cover crops twice.

It looks better than last year, but “we’re still not getting enough weed control, even with cover crops,” said agricultural economist Marshall Lamb, who heads up the study. He wonders if conventional tillage will still win out in such a weedy region. “If they can’t get weed control with cover crops, farmers will need bare ground to cultivate,” he said.

To suppress weeds in conservation tillage, Phatak developed a longer-term cropping system with longer-maturing new varieties, cash crops, and soil fertility. The 18-month cycle begins with an October planting of rye. The rye is harvested in June, followed with no-till velvet bean—an excellent feed for cattle with a small seed market as well. The velvet beans come off the field in the fall and the debris smothers the soil through the winter, ready for early planting.

After the first trial, “there was not a single weed in that field anywhere,” he said, but he couldn’t monitor results in the next season. In a new plot, currently in the velvet bean phase, he saw a 90 percent reduction in weeds this year.

Conventional tillage doable, but expensive

Despite other intentions, most farmers experimenting with organic peanuts this year used conventional tillage. Emile DeFelice, who raises pastured pork near Columbia, South Carolina, hadn’t planned on peanuts and didn’t have time to plant a cover crop on his 20-acre field. “We disked the bejeezus out of it,” he admitted.

They got a good stand of peanuts—and a great stand of grasses and pigweed. They bush hogged periodically just above the peanut stems to give light, which saved the crop from out-competition, but DeFelice anticipates about one-third of an average yield if the nuts mature.

Relinda Walker, an organic vegetable farmer in Screven County, Georgia, also near Savannah, hoped to plant no-till into wheat, but unseasonable rains waterlogged her fields. She instead chose her 10-acre rye field, but weeds had already emerged, so she tilled it all under and planted in twin rows. “It would have been suicide to plant into that many weeds,” she said. To manage weeds, her crew cultivated three times and hand weeded twice.

Nearby in Effingham County, Daughtry strip-tilled into winter wheat and tilled conventionally into another plot. The rains soaked her wheat field and prevented germination, and bermuda grass emerged worse than before in the strips, so she abandoned it. She had hoped to try corn gluten for weed control on the remaining three-quarter acre but could not find any non-genetically-modified gluten available. Instead, she cultivated twice and hand weeded three times on half of her plot; the other half--planted in a different variety--she hand weeded occasionally. Early yield estimates show 3,000 lbs/acre--roughly three times last year's yield--despite the weeds. This year's conventional peanut average was 3,100 lbs/acre.

In addition to propane flaming—an effective option for broadleaf weed problems—Johnson and USDA Peanut Lab researchers are exploring OMRI-approved herbicides. This year, tests with a clove-oil-based herbicide and a fatty-acid-based herbicide (also hand weeded multiple times) created the cleanest fields that could produce above-average yields. But, Johnson reminded, they can be 10 to 20 times more expensive than conventional herbicides. Close planting to achieve a canopy looks more promising,

“The longer I’m in this kind of work,” Johnson says, “the more I’m convinced that the future of organic peanut production is in cultural practices and hand weeding. The production economics are dictating that [purchased products] aren’t viable options.”

Beyond the market

Organic pioneer Daughtry is pursuing organics to make Georgia healthier. She grew up in a top peanut producing county in Georgia and saw many neighbors and family members die of cancer, which she attributes mostly to pesticide exposure. With the state’s extensive peanut acreage, “if we can change peanut production in Georgia, think of what the environmental and health benefits would be.”

Walker thinks organic peanuts are one of the best bets for the South to break into the organic market as a whole. “Farmers already know how to grow peanuts and consumers are familiar with them. They’re accessible,” she said. “They’re easier to grow organically in the South than vegetables.”

There’s lots of hard work, innovation and collaboration to go. “You’ve got to be willing to be creative and open to new approaches,” Johnson says. He’s optimistic that they’re finally progressing. “Last year I was a bit beleaguered with our lack of progress. We’ve still got a long ways to go, but a few things we’re seeing this year lead me to think we’re now headed down the right path.”

Leeann Culbreath is the mother of one-year-old Zeke. In her spare time, she writes, edits, gardens, and teaches writing in south Georgia, the heart of peanut country.