A familiar cloud of dust hangs over thousands of acres across Alabama this time of year. From fields as far north as Lawrence County and south to the Florida line, the dirty job is a necessary part of digging a peanut crop from the ground.
For a farmer like Glen Walters, the dust is a mark of fall, and the smell of a peanut harvest is unmistakable.
“You can be riding by with the windows up, and you can just smell that sweet smell,” Walters said. “I’ve been farming 43 years and have had 43 crops of peanuts. That smell is always the same.”
And there’s nothing quite like standing in a peanut field on a cool autumn morning, smelling that smell and popping a green peanut in your mouth, said Glen’s wife, Phyllis.
“It’s only natural to break one open to see how mature they are, and I’m not going to throw it down if I’ve already got it in my hand,” she said, smiling.
Walters began farming on his own in 1971 just outside of Andalusia on the same land he grew up farming with his father. He remembers when growing and harvesting peanuts required more labor and produced far fewer peanuts.
“First, you plowed them up with a tractor, and then you toted them to a pole and stacked them around it,” Walters said. “That stack would be eight feet high, and they would cap it off to help keep it dry. It might be two months after pulling the peanuts up before the picker got there.”
In addition to waiting on the community’s peanut picker to make it around to all the farms, Walters remembers when farmers struggled to prevent disease from ruining their entire peanut crop.
“We didn’t have any fungicides when I was young, and disease ate those peanuts up,” he said. “It’s not as much of a problem since fungicides were introduced, and they also started developing better varieties of peanuts, which have just gotten better throughout my farming career.”
However, not all problems were solved with the advent of modern technology. Peanut farmers still face many variables.
“We had a lot of dry weather this year,” Walters said. “Our yield will be off over 1,000 pounds per acre. And the dry weather caused us to have more disease pressure. It’s just going to be an off year in our area for farmers. As goes the peanuts, so goes the cotton.”
Some regions of the state faced dry summer weather and others were deluged with rain, causing higher disease pressure, Walters said.
In contrast, peanut farmer Sam Spruell said his harvest has been above average at around 5,200 pounds per acre. Spruell planted 800 acres of the crop this year in northwest Alabama — hundreds of miles from the traditional heart of peanut country.
“Our long-term average is about 4,800 pounds per acre,” said Spruell, who grows peanuts in Lawrence, Marion and Lamar counties. “One thing that makes peanuts appealing to us is we don’t have the same disease pressure they do in South Alabama. I’m not sure why, but that helps keep our costs down.”
Overall, more than 60 percent of the state’s crop is rated very poor, poor or fair according to the USDA’s Oct. 6 Crop Progress and Condition Report.
Fortunately, Alabama farmers planted 35,000 more acres of peanuts this year and are expected to harvest 516 million pounds, a 5-percent increase from the 2013 harvest.
Walters said no matter what — a good year, a bad year, rain or no rain — he is grateful to have been a farmer his entire life. He can’t imagine doing anything else.
“It’s hard to put it into words,” he said. “In the spring of the year, you get to plant a seed and watch it grow until it reaches maturity. You get to watch it change every day. Every day except Sunday, I’m out in the field — I love it.
“And it’s taught me so much about faith. I really have no control over it. I can’t make a seed germinate; I can’t make it rain; I can’t make the sun shine. As I’ve grown older, I’ve realized I’m not in control. It takes faith. But through all these years, our farm has provided for us. We’ve been blessed.”