Diversification, peanuts good for Carolina growers

William James and his brothers Whit and Hastings didn't exactly grow up on a farm, but they did grow up in agriculture. Their father, Arthur James, operated a cotton gin and other agri-businesses giving the James brothers a keen sense of the value of a dollar and its relation to hard work.

In 1975, the James brothers set out to make their agricultural fortune farming 100 acres of corn, 100 acres of cotton and 100 acres of soybeans. They subsequently bought the cotton gin from their father and now farm close to 2,000 acres near Orangeburg, S.C.

Keeping with family tradition, they added a grain elevator and buying point, recognizing that grain would fill the void being left by reduction in cotton acreage.

Completing their diversification, they bought a peanut buying point and operate a feed and hardware store from there. Being both new peanut growers and peanut buyers has been a rewarding, albeit challenging transition, according to James.

Like so many South Carolina farmers, they switched some of their acreage to peanuts four years back in an effort to reduce cotton acreage. At one time they grew as much as 1,200 acres of cotton.

“When you put a pencil to it, peanuts make sense for us. We increased acreage this year to about 300 acres. Last year we grew the most corn we've ever grown and this year we will grow the most wheat and soybeans we've ever grown,” James says.

A big advantage of diversification, he adds, is getting away from the more labor-intensive crops. “In our area finding and keeping good labor is a real challenge. Putting more acreage into grain seems to be a general trend in our area — much of that related to lower labor needs,” James says.

They now grow 500 acres of cotton, 600 acres of wheat and beans and 400 acres of corn in addition to their 300 acres of peanuts. Peanuts, he says offer the best opportunity for profit, followed by wheat and double-crop soybeans.

With irrigation, James says it costs $500-$600 per acre to grow cotton. Corn cost $400-$450 wheat and beans roughly $350 per acre. Recent increases in fertilizer alone raises the cost of production by $40 per acre on some crops, he says. Add in 4-plus dollars a gallon for diesel fuel and increases in pesticide costs, and the cost of doing business in agriculture is at a record high.

One of the advantages of being so diversified in both agri-business and production agriculture is being able to take advantage of current high prices for grain crops, but more importantly to be in a position to rotate crops to take maximum advantage of cost savings on crop inputs.

“Peanuts are especially attractive this year. Contracts are good, and by rotating every fourth year with corn, we are able to save a lot of money on fertilizer. We soil sample every farm every year, so we have a good handle on what our fertility needs will be and peanuts every fourth year is a good option from that perspective,” James says.

When they made the decision to get into peanut production in a big way, the James brothers made a commitment to do things right the first time around on peanut ground.

“We knew we would have some advantages growing peanuts on land on which the crop had never been grown. Still, we made an effort to manage the land as much as the crop. It was a part of our overall strategy,” James says.

In 2009, they will begin planting peanuts on some of their original peanut ground and James is convinced their attention to detail four years ago will pay off.

Last year they started strip-tilling their peanut land. “Strip-tilling peanuts is not for everybody, but on our farm it has worked out really well. It certainly has played a role in helping us keep peanut production costs down,” he adds.

In their strip-tillage system, the James brothers start with a burndown in early March, using glyphosate and 2,4-D. They strip-till the land, using an Auto Track GPS system that helps keep rows straight. Uniformity in rows helps get the land ready for planting, because they let it sit out 2-3 weeks to collect moisture in the beds.

“We are new to strip-tillage and still new to peanut production. As new growers we are fortunate to have Jay Chapin (Clemson University peanut and small grains specialist), who gives us a lot of good advice on varieties, planting dates, pesticides and other production practices.

“We are also fortunate to have a good county Extension agent, Greg Harvey, who knows a lot about peanut production. We listen pretty closely to what those guys tell us and so far we've had good success with our peanuts,” James says.

Though some growers have reduced seeding rates, James says they still use six seed per foot and plant on or about May 10, primarily to avoid problems with tomato spotted wilt virus.

Keeping with their plan to treat their peanut land right, they use liquid inoculant — not mixed with sprays. They add five pounds of Temik per acre to give the peanuts a good start.

They use glyphosate to burndown weeds and grass, then come back on or about May 10 and plant peanuts. Behind the planter they use a combination of herbicide families. “Typically, we will use some combination of Dual, Prowl and Valor. If we have escapes, which have been rare on the peanut land, they will come back with gramoxone or Cadre,” James says.

As for fungicides, James says, he relies heavily on recommendations from Jay Chapin. “I tell him what kind of land on which I am planting peanuts and he asks me a lot of questions. From that conversation, we get a range of fungicide options, and we base some of that on price, but mostly on the best way to rotate these fungicides to lower the risk of resistance,” he adds.

“We typically start with Bravo at 30 days after planting and Tilt plus Bravo, or the generic equivalent, at 45 days. That has remained fairly stable since we've been growing peanuts. After the initial two fungicide applications, we change the remaining sprays around from year to year.

“Last year we used Provost for the first time, with good results as a our third spray. We came back at 75 days with Abound, followed by Provost at 90 days and at 105 days we went with Folicur and Bravo,” he says.

In keeping with their strategy of doing things right, James says they used Provost in their fungicide schedule, even though it was more expensive than some other treatments. James notes that Provost provides both leafspot and white mold protection. Unlike other fungicides, it moves down through the plant, giving a slightly different mode of action.

“Growing peanuts on virgin land, we don't have a lot of disease problems, and I don't want it. That's why we use a comprehensive fungicide and herbicide program. We believe doing it the right way the first time, will pay off in the long-run,” James says.

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