Peanut growers take less traveled path in marketing

If there were two routes to a given destination, Billy Jones and his brother, Bobo, would be walking the path less traveled. It's a family trait that translates into profit in peanuts.

While their neighbors in Nash County, N.C., and surrounding counties were growing “quota” peanuts under the old program, the brothers were taking less for their crop and thriving on 17.5 cents per pound or $350 per ton, growing additional peanuts in an area known for high-cost production.

Under the new program, they basically got a 40 percent raise and are again bucking the trend, marching to the beat of their own drummer, adding peanuts as acres are moving to southeastern North Carolina and South Carolina.

The simple philosophy came from their late father, W.A. Jones Jr. “My dad told me if everybody's going one way, go the other way. Although he used more colorful language to describe what he was saying,” Billy chuckles.

Following that advice, they've taken advantage of marketing breaks over the years, while keeping an in the field approach to producing a crop. “Under the old program, it was about yield. In a sense, the new program is about yield also.”

Two contracts signed

They signed two contracts in January to produce some 5 million pounds of peanuts on 1,500 acres: 3.5 million pounds at $500 a ton and 1.5 million pounds at $475 per ton. As Billy puts it, “I've sold so many million pounds of peanuts for $350 a ton that when it gets to $400 or $450 a ton, I'm jumping up and down and clapping my hands.” They market their crop with Joel Boseman at Battleboro Produce in Nash County.

“We had made a living since the 1980s growing additional peanuts at 17.5 cents per pound,” says Billy. “There wasn't any quota in Nash County. When the price changed to 23 cents to 25 cents per pound under the new peanut program, that meant a 40 percent increase in income with no more cost.”

Billy doesn't see a change in the money from several years ago until now and he doesn't see what all the fuss was about in changing the program. “It's the best thing that's ever happened to me and my brother. Our price has gone from $350 to $475. I keep wanting to pinch myself. It's simple math.”

Figuring in his head, he recounts the $610 quota price for peanuts under the old program. Take rent out of that price, and he says, the price is back to $475 and $500 per ton. “The money is the same,” he says. “Quota can be taken away. Anytime I get at least 20 cents per pound, I can make money at it.”

In January 2004, Jones approached Boseman at Battleboro Produce in preparation for the 2004 growing season. “I want to know what I'm going to do in January. Peanuts are our main crop. I don't like going into the year without a contract.”

Boseman worked with shellers to get the Joneses a certain number of peanuts at $500 per ton and the remainder at $475. “We took our percentage of what we had sold last year.” He credits Boseman's rapport with the peanut companies for his marketing success in the past. “He's a good man to do business with.”

Last year, essentially the first marketing year under the new program, Billy felt that grower anticipations of $600 contracts were overly optimistic. Instead, he signed a $500 contract and turned the Loan Deficiency Payment over to the sheller.

Billy says marketing under the new program is probably “cut-and-dried: you either sign a contract or you roll the dice.”

Good experience

Drawing on experience, advice and luck, Jones and his brother have come out smelling like a rose in difficult circumstances throughout the years.

For example, in 2001 the Jones brothers signed a contract for $350. But before they signed the contract, Billy made a call.

“I asked the man what his advice would be and he said, ‘The pool is not going to pay a dime this year on additional peanuts, so take every acre and figure out the maximum yield you can make and contract it for $350,’” Billy recalls. “That year we had 4,200 pounds per acre and got $350 per ton. That's $700 an acre. You've got to make two bales of cotton and get 70 cents a pound for it in order to be able to do that good. Sometimes it pays to know who to ask. It was a good move and it was luck. But luck keeps you in business sometimes.”

His neighbors may have looked at him sideways when they saw him increasing acreage under the new program, but it's a decision built on experience with peanuts.

In 1980, a drought created a late-season opportunity when the price of peanuts went up, helping the brothers make a windfall profit. They had the top yield in the county with 2,600 pounds that year. “Peanuts went up 7 cents a pound the day we started harvesting and we were selling them for 50 cents a pound by season's end. We got around to harvesting peanuts when everybody else was through because we still had tobacco in the field. We were lucky.”

Has worked well

In 1981, when a good contract came out, they were among the few to sign. “That year, we got 30 cents a pound and made 4,500 pounds to the acre,” Billy recalls. “The next year, we added more acres and it worked again. We've been increasing acres ever since because we like peanuts.”

The Jones brothers grew 920 acres of dryland peanuts last year. For 2004, they plan to plant 1,500 acres on the light soil of Nash County.

During the growing season, the Jones brothers are often out in the peanut fields. Billy calls it “a crop we can figure out.”

“We can look at a field while we're riding by and tell what it needs,” Billy says. “Peanuts won't let me down, so I'm not going to let them down. Peanuts are so consistent that only the weather affects them.”

Billy and Bobo start the year fumigating with Vapam for Cylindrocladium black rot. They rip and bed the peanut land that's on a three-year rotation. “I tell everybody my secrets,” Billy says.

They use liquid and granular inoculant. “When you fumigate, you sterilize the land and inoculant is extremely important, so we apply both, just in case one gets stopped up.” With the liquid inoculant, we mix Orthene. They put out Temik for nematodes and thrips and apply Lorsban at pegging.

When it comes to fungicides, the Joneses use high rates. “I think a high rate of fungicide helps with CBR,” Billy says.

By doing the spraying himself, Billy feels he can see “whether or not these products are working. We try to do as much of the work as we can.”

Includes harvest

That includes digging and harvesting. “You can lose 500 or 600 pounds at digging and not even know it. To me, that's what separates peanut farmers. You sell the peanuts by the pound. The farm has its own driers, but also relies on dryers at the buying point when things get hectic.

Bobo is the shop foreman and also handles the spraying, digging and combining along with Billy.

Billy's wife, Brenda, drives the tractor, disks and helps with the books. Bobo's wife, Debbie, is the farm's supply line. She also pays the bills and monitors every aspect of the peanut planting operation.

Jone's advice is to pay attention to the needs of your crop. On issues about marketing, consider the advice that appears to be opposite of the current thinking.

e-mail: [email protected]

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