Peanut Profitability winners show ‘human’ factor still critical in farming

Peanut Profitability winners show ‘human’ factor still critical in farming

As a society, we’ve become enthralled with technology, and agriculture is certainly no different.

From new hybrids to smartphone-controlled equipment, farmers have readily adopted tools to ease their workloads and improve production.

And while no one is debating the innovations brought by this technology, it’s the nature of some of these advances that the human factor many times is reduced or taken out of the equation altogether. So it’s important to remember, especially in years when we have record-shattering yields — these crops aren’t growing all by themselves, at least not yet.

This truth was brought home to me recently when I was discussing the production practices of this year’s Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winners with Marshall Lamb, research director with the National Peanut Research Laboratory in Dawson, Ga., and advisor for the awards program.

More often than not, whenever the subject comes up of the record-breaking peanut yields of 2012, much of the credit goes to improved varieties, and they’ve surely played a major role. But Lamb isn’t buying that disease-resistant varieties or any other technology deserves the credit for this past year’s remarkable production.

Rather, he says, all of the credit goes to U.S. producers. The current group of U.S peanut farmers is better than any technology that could ever be imagined, says Lamb.

“Our farmers and their management capabilities are as big a part of the success this past year as improved varieties or anything else. We knew 10 years ago, when this current farm bill was passed that it was a production farm bill, and that farmers had to be able to produce to survive.”

The current group of growers is proof of this, he says, adding that he doesn’t think they’ll become complacent because of their accomplishments this past year.

Biggest pitfall

“The biggest pitfall would be to assume that a year like last year will repeat itself. Most of these farmers take a very conservative approach when they start their budget process. A season could be impacted by nothing more than not being able to pick peanuts in the fall because of weather conditions. They don’t go out and budget for 3-ton peanuts. They accept it when it comes, but they don’t plan for it.”

Acres are down this year, and prices are lower, so it’s a distinctly different situation from the previous two years. It’ll be interesting, says Lamb, to see how growers respond.

Today’s farmers understand that peanut production is not for the faint hearted, he says. “I used to think that one day we could stop these up and down cycles, but I believe now that with a small commodity like peanuts, grown in a relatively small geographic region, we just have to learn to live with these cycles, and our growers realize this.”

Lamb is hopeful the U.S. peanut market will improve in the coming months. “China is an important factor in the export market, and hopefully we’ll pick up some of the European markets. But I also think the investments manufacturers have made to expand product lines and to get more peanut products into the U.S. market will help through increased demand for the U.S. I think it’s about to explode on us, and that’ll be good for our farmers.”

One of the keys to supplying long-term increases in demand will be having a stable supply year-in and year-out, says Lamb. “That could be a major limiting factor, and I don’t know that we have a way to control it. The price is being driven by manufacturers, and shellers can’t afford to go out on a limb and get in a long position on prices.”

Farmers responded to current market conditions by significantly reducing peanut acreage, says Lamb.

“I was thinking we needed about a 28 to 30 percent reduction from last year. It’s hard to say for sure at this point, but it looks like we accomplished it. From a management standpoint, farmers saw we were extremely over-supplied, and because of that, prices offered for peanuts were not competitive with other crops. They saw this as a year when they could go into those other crops and improve their rotation systems.”

You can read about the practices of the 2013 Peanut Profitability Award winners at Farm Press names 14th class of Peanut Profitability Award winners.

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