The perfectly powerful peanut is spreading its roots to new territories as Alabama farmers turn to the legume in light of last year’s drought and low grain prices.
DeKalb County’s Marty Wootten is diversifying his farm near Ider. He said peanuts were the easiest crop to factor in this year.
“You have to stay with the times, or you get behind,” said the 51-year-old, who raises chickens, cattle and 2,000 acres of row crops with sons Jared, Hayden and Jamie.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports Alabama farmers planted 225,000 acres of peanuts this year, up 50,000 acres from 2016.
The Sand Mountain soil where the Woottens previously grew potatoes is ideal for peanuts. Wootten said his family’s 190 acres of peanuts are the only ones on the mountain this year. If peanut prices stay high, he said more farmers may plant peanuts, despite the investment in specialized equipment.
Across the state in Fayette County, Clark Lawrence planted 260 acres of peanuts on his family’s non-irrigated farmland. He said low corn and soybean prices coupled with farming solely dry land made peanuts the best option for his crop rotation.
“Our soil is best suited for cotton,” said Lawrence, 24, who also farms in Tuscaloosa County. “With cotton being our main crop, we also wanted a crop that would help us make the best yields possible. Peanuts allow you to do that. I know farmers who have seen a 200-300 pound-per-acre increase on cotton planted behind peanuts.”
The Woottens discussed branching out into peanut production four years ago, but small grain prices spiked, putting peanuts on the back burner.
In January, the topic came up again, and they were sold. Experts from Auburn University and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System helped select varieties and gave advice through the growing season. The Woottens also took an exploratory trip to the Wiregrass to talk with long-time peanut farmers and buy another planter and harvester.
Lawrence said working peanuts into his rotation was simple, requiring just a little more preparation — an early burn down for pigweed and mares tail and running subsoil levelers to loosen the soil before planting.
By growing 250-300 acres of peanuts each year, he said he’ll limit equipment to one combine and work toward a 4-year rotational plan with cotton.
Since cotton works well with peanuts, Wootten said his family might diversify more in the next few years. But first they have to get through this growing season, where a damp, cool spring delayed planting until late May, and heavy rains fell in June.
“As cool as it was into late spring, it may have been good we didn’t have the peanuts in the ground until later,” Wootten said. “Now, it’s been very wet, which is good for corn, but our peanuts could use some sunshine.”
Alabama Peanut Producers Association’s (APPA) Executive Director Caleb Bristow said as of early July, most peanuts were thriving — a sign producers’ plans are likely to pay off.
“Peanuts are a great, stable row crop market, and there are experts across the state ready to help farmers,” said Bristow. “We need more peanut acreage as domestic and international demand grows. If prices hold, Alabama peanut production numbers should increase even more next year.”