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
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
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,”
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
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
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.”