William McElveen, 2008 Upper Southeast Winner
Profitability a long-time traditions for South Carolina peanut grower
Armed with a degree in history and love for sports, William McElveen set out early in life to teach and coach. Several decades later he’s still at it — teaching and coaching, but no longer in school.
After a short but successful tenure as a high school history teacher and football coach in Bishopville, S.C., McElveen came to understand he was living the wrong professional dream.
With a John Deere 4010 tractor and a few acres of land, he began farming part time to supplement his meager teaching and coaching wages. From that humble beginning, his farming operation has grown to 600 acres of peanuts, 500 acres of cotton, 500 acres of corn, 500 acres of wheat and 1,000 acres of soybeans, some of which is double-cropped behind wheat.
McElveen is being honored this year as the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner for the Upper Southeast States.
He farms with his son Will, who says his father never lost his knack for teaching people how to do things and his ability to coach them to do it right. "Everything I know about farming I learned from my father," Will says.
The old coach tells the story a little differently. "If I’ve had any success in farming it’s because I listen to people who know what they are doing, and I adapt what they tell me to my farming operation," he says
"For example, I used to patch equipment up in the field and go back to work, usually stopping several times to get it fixed. When Will came back to the farm, he said, no, when a piece of equipment breaks down, let’s take it back to the equipment shed and fix it right. Will was right and I was wrong and now we have less trouble with mechanical breakdowns," the senior McElveen explains.
A key to his success has been his ability to find, train and most importantly keep good labor. "We have five people who work with us on the farm. They have all been with us a long time, they work hard, and know what they are doing," he says.
What is evident, but what McElveen humbly doesn’t say is his workers are well coached and well trained.
When he made the decision to give up his dream of being a football coach and teacher, McElveen had meager resources to put it mildly. In addition, his wife, Dianne, was pregnant with Will at the time. "Talk about risk in farming, he laughs, it’s nothing new to me."
Though the vast majority of peanut production in South Carolina is from growers who have been in the business for less than five years, McElveen is the exception, having grown peanuts for more than 25 years.
Profitability in peanuts is directly tied to timeliness. "When the experts say spray right now, you’ve got to be ready to go. However, they are looking at spraying small acres in test plots, and we are spraying big acres. We have 600 acres of peanuts, so it takes some time to do anything to all our acres of peanuts," according to McElveen.
"The key is taking the information, for fungicide spraying, for example, and adapting the recommended spray schedule to your own operation. You have to be flexible and adapt information to what works best for your farm," the veteran peanut grower says.
Case in point, on May 19 McElveen was trying desperately to finish planting peanuts. He started on May 6, exactly when Clemson Peanut Specialist Jay Chapin says plant, but weather didn’t cooperate, spreading planting out over two weeks. On May 19, wind isn’t usually a problem in South Carolina’s Pee Dee Region, but on this day gusts of 20-25 miles per hour made spraying herbicides behind the planter impossible.
Being adaptable, McElveen planted the peanuts and will come back and spray when he sprays cotton. The key, he says, is to get the herbicide on as quickly as possible after planting. "In our case, in this year, spraying 2-3 days after planting was the only course possible," he explains.
At a time when most folks are gearing up for retirement, McElveen is still going strong. Planting peanuts, finding cotton seed that were supposed to be delivered, but weren’t, switching planters from peanuts to cotton — all in a days work. All a part of the dream William McElveen is living out.
Whether 25 years of growing peanuts makes William McElveen the dean of South Carolina peanuts may be a stretch, but certainly he is one of the state’s longest running producers.
"Growing peanuts today is nothing like it was 25 years ago. Heaven forbid, we couldn’t have continued this long without all the technological changes that have come along. And, we wouldn’t have been able to stay in the peanut business profit-wise without adapting these changes to our own situation," he says.
"When we started growing peanuts, we used a four-row planter. Now, we use two eight-row planters," McElveen says. "Getting bigger is easy, getting bigger and staying profitable is not nearly so easy", he adds.
How well a grower is able to adapt equipment from growing peanuts to cotton to corn to soybeans or any other crop sounds simple, but it’s not. Neither is seeing a farmer down the road be successful with a new technique, trying it, then having to admit it’s not right for your situation, he says.
"For example, we read about and talked to our neighbors about strip-tilling peanuts. For some folks it works well, saves fuel and time, but for us it didn’t work. Last year, we had to make our crop at harvest time, because the drought limited the amount of peanuts we had at picking time. We had trouble getting our peanuts out of the ground on the land we strip-tilled. Our soil is just not suited to it." McElveen contends the biggest yield loss most peanut farmers have comes in the digging and picking process. Timing is critical, but you just can’t stop everything else to pick peanuts, he says. "Even though we may be picking peanuts in one field, we are still spraying peanuts in another location," he says. "On the one had you have to be timely in peanut production. On the other hand, you have to be thorough with all your crops."
He says giving peanuts, or any crop, a good start is another key to profitability. "We put Temik at 5 pounds per acre in the furrow with the planter, and we feel like that gives our peanuts a good start. We include Asset to help with root formation and Optimize Lift at planting," he adds.
Though many long-time peanut growers in neighboring states have had debilitating losses from disease, McElveen says being diversified has helped with peanut rotations, but the real key to avoiding disease problems is again, timeliness.
"At 45 days we begin with an application of Bravo and Tilt, giving us two different families of fungicides. At 60 days, we come back with Provost, giving us another family of fungicides. At 75 days we spray with Abound and at 90 days with Provost and my last spray will be another application of Bravo," McElveen explains.
Growing peanuts in combination with grain crops can be an economical blessing in 2008. With commodity prices high and peanut contracts good, the opportunity is clearly there for farmers to have a good year. However, all the tools needed to grow those crops — diesel fuel, fertilizer, seed, pesticides — have all gone up faster than commodity prices.
"What the American public doesn’t understand when they see all these media reports about record high commodity prices and increasing food prices, is that to grow these crops, the farmer has to accept much higher risks. A drought, a flood or some other natural disaster beyond a farmer’s ability to manage can take him out of business in today’ world," McElveen says.
"I am an optimist — I don’t see how farmers can stay in business without being optimistic. Taking risks is one of the components of living the American dream," McElveen says.
Mike Nugent, 2008 Lower Southeast Winner
Rotation key to success for Southeast Peanut Profitability winner
When south Georgia farmer Mike Nugent talks about the benefits of crop rotation, he speaks with some authority, especially considering that his 2007 peanut crop was the result of a 14-year rotation.
"I haven’t grown peanuts in several years," says the Coffee County, Ga., producer. "We did grow peanuts when I farmed years ago with my father and bother, and we grew them for many years. But when we got into the broiler business, we sold the peanut quota. We always made good peanuts, from 2 tons to 5,000 pounds per acre. But we thought the broiler industry was better than peanuts at the time, and it was," he says.
Nugent’s long-awaited foray back into the peanut business has earned him the honor of being named the 2008 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner for the Lower Southeast Region.
Nugent’s farm consists of about 330 acres, with 240 of that being in pastures and cropland. He also has four broiler houses and runs about 140 head of brood cows.
"Last year, we had 55 acres of peanuts, about 80 acres of cotton, and the balance was in grass or grazing for the cows. Our cotton yields last year were about 1,420 pounds of lint per acre and our peanuts was nearly 5,000 pounds per acre," says Nugent.
About 80 percent of Nugent’s cropland is irrigated with center pivots.
Nugent uses his poultry litter for fertilizer, and he hasn’t had to purchase very much commercial fertilizer over the years. "We didn’t fertilize peanuts at all last year. We might put out 50 pounds of nitrogen on cotton at side-dress, and that’s all it gets other than chicken litter," he says.
He says a lot has changed since he last grew peanuts. "We had Lasso and dinitro for weed control, and we’d pull them by hand. We decided to grow peanuts again because the price has improved so, to more than $500 per ton. People told me that since I used to grow peanuts, I should try growing them again. Our County Extension Agent, Eddie McGriff, wanted to put in some peanut test plots, so we went ahead and added to those," he says.
Nugent has planted 50 acres of twin-row peanuts this year, his first experience with this planting method. "I’ve heard about growers having problems with digging twin-row peanuts, but we’re willing to try some this year. We have a problem with vine growth because of the fertility of this land behind all this chicken litter. We have a lot of rank vine growth, so we might have to do something to control that," he says.
This year, Nugent will have 65 acres of peanuts, including a replicated plot where he’s planting directly into rye stubble. "These plots give me the benefit of knowing what produces best on my farm — we’ve done cotton test plots for at least the past seven or eight years," he says.
Nugent says his peanut planting system is as close to no-till as he can get it. "We do have to subsoil. When we first bought our planting rig, it was a strip-till unit, but we kept modifying it. Now, we disturb only a small area when we plant. If I could get by with less than that, I’d do it. Anytime we disturb the soil, we get weeds. In some of our thick rye stubble, I don’t see how a weed could come up because it’s so thick. We planted about three bushels of rye per acre and combined it. Then, we planted straight into the stubble," he says.
Some of Nugent’s rye is planted for grazing, and in other fields he pulls off his cows and harvests it for seed.
"We try and get three or four crops per year off the same land," he says. "I’m not a really large-scale farmer, so I have to make every acre produce. We must have something year-round producing on this farm for me to make it. In other words, we have to maximize our potential."
In another field that will be planted to peanuts this year, oats were planted and it was grazed, says Nugent. "The cows got the oats down pretty low. Then, we had a freeze in February and it killed the oats, so I planted peanuts into what was left. We’d like to have a heavy cover over all the land. I’ve noticed that the thicker the cover, the better the yields, and this applies to peanuts or cotton."
He’ll be planting about half of his peanut acreage in the AP-3 variety and the other half in Georgia Green. "I like Georgia Green, but the disadvantage is its susceptibility to tomato spotted wilt virus. The more cover we have and plant into, and the later we plant, the less risk we have to tomato spotted wilt virus. Last year, I had less than 1 percent, and if we had a hit of white mold, I didn’t see it."
Nugent sprayed for disease four times last year. "If we go back into a rotation of peanuts every two or three years, I don’t know how well we will do. Right now, in the first year or two, I have some land that hasn’t had peanuts on it in a while. They say that in the second year, you can get by about as well as in the first year — we’ll see."
Last year, he began spraying when the peanuts were about 60 days old, first with Headline at the recommended rate and then with Abound and Bravo. The third treatment was Abound and Bravo and the final spray was Bravo, all at 21-day intervals.
Like other farmers in the Southeast, Nugent endured extreme drought conditions in 2007. "We’re pulling water out of a 15 to 20-acre pond. We also have a deep well, but we don’t turn it on unless we have to. We had to turn it on and run it awhile last year."
This year, Nugent says there has been more moisture at planting than in 2007, but rainfall still has been scarce, with only about seven tenths of an inch in May.
"We’re finding that the biggest payoff to planting into a cover crop is that whenever it’s dry, we can hold moisture, and it saves us on irrigation."
Nugent began planting no-till about 12 years ago. "It ain’t pretty, but it works, and it also helps reduce fuel costs."
In another move to help hold down the high cost of fuel, Nugent has switched his irrigation system from a 200-horsepower diesel engine to a 100-horsepower electric motor. He estimates this has cut his cost of running the center pivots by about 40 percent.
For weed control, Nugent is using Valor behind the press wheel as a pre-emergence treatment, and then Valor, Strongarm, Prowl and Roundup for burning down.
"We’re starting to have problems with glyphosate-resistant pigweed, especially on one farm. This year, we’re increasing the rate of Prowl to hopefully take them out."
He uses Temik in-furrow for thrips control.
"We usually plant about six seed per foot. On twin rows, we planted eight per foot or four per row," he says.
The key to maintaining profitability, says Nugent, is rotation. "I’m no better farmer than anyone else, but rotation is the main thing that keeps us profitable. We may be growing peanuts every three years, or we may move to a different crop in the future."
Nugent, who has been farming essentially his entire life, beginning when he was in high school, says he works to keep down fixed costs by doing a lot of his own machinery repairs. He has one full-time worker who helps him on the farm. No-till, he adds, also has helped in keeping down costs.
"It all comes down to managing and staying on top of things. If you’re not going to get it back, don’t put it in the crop in the first place. You have to use common sense."
Nugent and his wife Martha have two daughters, Christy and Tracy Unger.
Otis Johnson, 2008 Southwest Winner
Efficient water use is key for Southwest Peanut Profitability winner
It’s all about the water. Producing peanuts profitably in the Texas Southern Plains demands efficient water management, says Otis Johnson, Seminole, Texas, peanut and cotton farmer and winner of the 2008 Southwest Peanut Profitability Award.
"Irrigation efficiency is the key," Johnson says. "We are selling water and we’re selling it cheap, so we have to pump it carefully."
Johnson says several other practices also factor into production efficiency including strip-till on cotton and peanuts, a strict four-year rotation program and global positioning system technology to get the most out of fertilizers and to reduce overlaps and harvest losses.
Johnson averaged 6,600 pounds per acre on 523 acres last year and made 7,710 pounds per acre on one 60-acre field.
"I had a 120-acre circle with half planted in Virginia peanuts and half planted in runners," Johnson says. "The Virginias (NC-7s) made 6,800 pounds and the runners FlavoRunner 458) made 7,710. I didn’t do anything different in that field but I had a lot of timely rains."
He was a bit surprised, nonetheless. "I typically plant a lot of peanuts on new ground, fields coming out of CRP. But this field had been farmed continuously since the 1930s. It was an exceptional year."
He says the crop got off to a slow start and was delayed 10 days to two weeks by cool weather. "Temperatures warmed up nicely and we got timely rains and little disease pressure. And we got a three-inch rain in August that finished the crop."
Those rains helped with irrigation timing and costs last summer. "Most years we use full irrigation; once we turn the systems on we don’t turn them off. But we had rain last year and were able to rest the pivots."
He’s also saving water with efficient irrigation. "I use LEPA and some wobblers," he says. "I don’t use drag hoses and don’t have furrow dikes."
He says the dikes are hard to maintain with strip-till. "With minimum-tillage, water doesn’t run out of the fields as it does in conventional systems."
He says if water levels keep dropping he may have to reconsider irrigation practices.
"Last year we had good rainfall and levels didn’t drop, but we used a lot of water in 2001 and 2002."
He’s considered drip irrigation. "I’ve thought about it but I’m not certain how to make drip work when we need to break the land. We also have sandy soils, so we can get a two-inch rain and be back in the field the next day."
He says strip-till helps conserve moisture but also requires a bit more water for the cover crop. He plants peanuts in strips between four rows of rye. He terminates the rye and the stubble helps protect peanut seedlings from blowing sand that’s common in west Texas. The rye stubble deteriorates rapidly and adds organic matter to the soil.
He says establishing cover may mean using 3 to 5 more inches of irrigation water, but the moisture that falls on the field in-season stays put better. "If we get a 3-inch downpour, the water stays in the soil.
"My whole farm is in strip-till," he says. "My sprayer has become my most important piece of equipment. After planting, it’s what’s running until harvest time."
With strip-till he can cultivate if necessary and he always breaks peanut land in the fall, lists and sows rye. "It’s good to break the land once every four years," he says. "That helps get the fields level and establishes beds. Also, breaking buries the seed left from Roundup Ready cotton."
He never breaks cotton land.
He’s been 100 percent strip-till since 1996. "I had one field that year with tight soil. When cotton was about to the six-leaf stage we had an 80 mile-per-hour wind that just smoked it. That was the lowest yield I ever made under that circle and the lowest yield ever on conventional-tillage. One good blow can cost a bale of cotton."
Rotation makes a big difference, too, Johnson says. "I plant three years in cotton and one in peanuts. That’s why we make the yield."
Last year was wet, cool and humid. "We knew we would have more disease pressure. And with a shorter rotation period, disease would have been heavier."
He says he may occasionally plant two years to cotton and one to peanuts one time in new ground. "Then I get on the four-year rotation."
Planting one-fourth of his land in peanuts and three-fourths in cotton also makes harvest a bit easier. "We can get in trouble if we don’t harvest peanuts on time," he says. "Harvesting peanuts late can hurt worse than late cotton."
He and his brother share peanut harvest equipment and jokes that the only stipulation is that they both get to go first. "We hire cotton harvest."
He says labor also plays a role in their decision to have cotton custom harvested. "Labor is hard to find and we can’t hire two crews."
Johnson says fungicides made a difference in the 2007 crop. "We had some leafspot and if we didn’t treat we got in trouble."
He says three different treatments proved the point. One field did not get sprayed, another got one application of Abound and another had two applications, one of Abound and another with Folicur. Difference in the unsprayed field and the one application was 1,000 pounds per acre. "The fields with two applications were some better than those with just one."
He says by harvest time the untreated field had been defoliated by the disease.
"We see enough disease problems in this area now to figure on at least one fungicide application. If we wait too late, we have problems. A lot of us learned that lesson last year."
Weeds were a bit more troublesome last year as well. "I like to apply Trilin and then Prowl and Gramoxone at cracking. I use Pursuit in some fields, about half my peanut acreage, usually the first week of June."
Pursuit goes on his toughest weed problems. "I have some fields with morningglory and other weed problems and that’s where I use Pursuit. I don’t use it unless I need it and it’s typically the same fields every year. Those are usually the fields I cultivate, too. I’ll cultivate and then spray Pursuit and I don’t touch it again."
He missed his Prowl and Gramoxone applications last year. "It rained for three days straight and I don’t like to go over the top so I had a few weeds."
He’s looking for other ways to increase production efficiency, especially in light of increased energy and fertilizer costs.
"GPS offers a huge advantage," he says. "We’re not using variable rate application yet, but it’s coming, especially with higher expenses. I’d like to get it going."
He’s already using GPS on two tractors and says working across as many as 24 rows is no problem. "When I go to variable rate application I’ll add GPS to the sprayer."
He says some of his fields run three-fourths of a mile long and with GPS he keeps rows straight. "I use the guidance systems for digging and thrashing peanuts. I can usually see the rows at harvest, but GPS makes it easier to stay on track. It saves money. We have to stay straight when we’re digging and thrashing or we lose peanuts."
He didn’t lose many last year but credits a lot of his success to good weather, timely rains and a late fall. "Fall was about perfect for harvest," he says. "If we’d had an early cold snap, we could have been hurt."
He’s looking at upgrading to larger equipment to save time and began using a seed tender last year to make planting more efficient. He’s cut back slightly on seeding rate, from 94 to 91 pounds per acre. He also uses a large storage unit instead of smaller peanut wagons to streamline harvest.
Johnson says he doesn’t do it alone. He credits his wife Teri for keeping the books and doing whatever else is necessary to keep the farm running smoothly.
He’s found one more advantage to reduced-tillage systems. He knows he’s saving soil, conserving water, using less energy and protecting young plants from harsh spring weather. But he also saves time.
And extra time allows him to stay involved with his family and community. He’s coached his two daughters, Jenna, 15, and Kaley, 12, in softball and is chairman of the Texas Peanut Producers Board. He serves on the Western Peanut Producers Board as well and somehow finds time for the Seminole Independent School District Board, the Livestock Show Association Board and is on the finance and television ministries at the First Baptist church in Seminole.
Efficiency doesn’t stop in the peanut field.