For 22 years, Mike Kubicek proudly proclaimed: “I work for peanuts.” He answered to such monikers as Peanut Man and the Goober half of Goober Gourmet.
His wife of 47 years, Kianna, played the role of Gourmet, preparing delicious recipes with peanuts as the main ingredient.
He traveled among leaders political, commercial and agricultural and represented peanuts and, more specifically, peanut farmers, in the halls of Congress, the Oklahoma State House, boardrooms, classrooms and state fairgrounds. He greeted people with a handshake, a smile and a bag of peanuts.
Indeed, Mike Kubicek worked for peanuts. And it was a labor of love, a passion that began on a Pottawatomie County, Okla., farm back in the middle of the last century and took a new turn in March as he relinquished his duties as executive director of the Oklahoma Peanut Commission during the 50th annual Oklahoma Peanut Expo in Lone Wolf.
He and Kianna will retire to their 1,300-acre Econtuchka Farms near Shawnee and raise wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum, hay and commercial cattle. No peanuts in that part of Oklahoma any longer.
His dad raised peanuts and Kubicek fondly recalls harvest time, “back in the day.”
Pottawatomie County used to be a major peanut-producing area, seventh in the state. “When I was in grade school, school turned out for two weeks in the fall and we went to the peanut fields,” Kubicek says. “A threshing machine was moved from field to field and producers gathered the peanuts and hauled them to the thresher in wagons. I drove the tractor pulling the wagon. I was probably about 12.”
When one farm was finished, the entourage picked up and moved on to the next.
“Peanuts have been a big part of my life,” he says. “In fact, my father was the first chairman of the Oklahoma Peanut Commission.”
Kubicek has witnessed a lot of changes in peanut production in the 22 years he’s served the Commission and the years before that when he worked for the Oklahoma Wheat Commission and as a county Extension agent, armed with a fresh MS degree from Oklahoma State University.
Mechanization, he says, changed peanut farming from an enterprise that requied the whole family to one that can be handled by one person. “Hydraulics may have been the greatest invention for a farm,” he says.
He’s also seen improvements in disease management, varieties and harvest equipment. Peanut combines have replaced those old threshing machines.
But the factor that had the biggest impact on the Oklahoma peanut industry has nothing to do with production. “Peanut farmers have dealt with weather, diseases and other production issues,” he says. “But peanut policy has affected peanuts more than anything else.”
Before successive farm bills, beginning in the 1990s, began to chip away at the peanut supply management program, Oklahoma planted as many as 240,000 acres of peanuts. That acreage has dwindled to around 13,000 in recent years. “The 1996 farm bill allowed quota to be moved around,” Kubicek says, “and that got legislators thinking more and more about the quota system.” The 2002 farm law eliminated the quota program.
He says folks in Washington lately have discussed having some type of program that regulates production. “We had that and they threw it out,” he says. “We need something to replace the roller coaster ride we have, no matter the commodity.”
He says the uncertainty in commodity markets has hurt communities as well as producers. “The 2002 Farm Bill destroyed a lot of rural communities,” he says. “In the eastern part of the state a lot of small communities have simply vanished.”
The program was a salvation to many farmers and rural areas back in the ‘40s, on the heels of the Great Depression. “During World War II the War Department asked farmers to plant peanuts for the oil,” he says. “Farmers took a lot of pride in producing something for the war effort.” He says Oklahoma farm families still point to their fathers and grandfathers with pride for growing those wartime peanuts.
Kubicek earned a BS degree from OSU in agronomy and an MS in plant breeding, a degree that has paid dividends with his efforts on behalf of the Peanut Commission.
He considered taking on a PhD and working with the late Olin Smith, a Texas A&M peanut breeder at College Station. He developed a relationship with Smith but did not pursue the PhD. He recalls, too, meeting a representative from the Leaf Corporation (now part of Hershey) who complained about the poor shelf life of peanuts they bought for candy.
Kubicek met with Smith and asked about the possibility of developing a high-oleic Spanish type peanut to improve peanut shelf life and the quality of candy bars.
Smith had done limited work breeding a high-oleic Spanish peanut but knew that demand was for improved runner-type peanuts.
‘We got together with Mary Webb, executive director of the Texas Peanut Producers Board, and discussed the possibility of developing that high-oleic Spanish peanut,” Kubicek recalls.
Reception at first was cool, but Kubicek and Smith got approval after agreeing to add runner peanuts into the breeding work.
“We put it on a fast track,” he says, “with a goal of producing a new variety in six years. It usually takes 12.”
They made two crops a year by planting in the Southwest and also in Puerto Rico.
“Dr. Smith passed away before we got the variety,” Kubicek says. But the OLin variety came out of that effort, and the industry retained a good customer that was on the verge of looking elsewhere for product.
First high-oleic varieties
Kubicek says helping launch those first high-oleic peanut varieties is one of his favorite milestones with the Oklahoma Peanut Commission. “That’s the one thing that pleases me the most,” he says. “It was a collaborative effort with the Leaf Corporation, Oklahoma State University, Texas A&M, Texas Tech University, the Oklahoma Peanut Commission, the Texas Peanut Producers Board and USDA-ARS.”
Several more high-oleic varieties will be released within the next two years, including Venus, a new Virginia peanut this year.
Kelly Chamberlin, a peanut breeder with USDA-ARS Center for Peanut Improvement in Stillwater, says Kubicek has been a driving force behind the peanut breeding program, “including funding for my position. Of all the people in the industry he has been the most important for my work in many different ways.”
Kubicek, through the Oklahoma Peanut Commission, secured $1 million for the peanut breeding program at Stillwater over the last 20 years. “Those funds have enabled us to continue our (breeding) efforts,” Chamberlin says, “and allow us to buy equipment, hire personnel and do our jobs.
“Mike also taught me a lot as far as not being just a research scientist but someone who talks to farmers. I grew up on a farm, so I can relate to them, but Mike taught me how important it is to let them know that I work for them, trying to solve their problems through breeding work. He taught me a lot about public relations. I am confident about talking to anyone about what we do.”
Chamberlin and her team, including retired ARS peanut breeder Hassan Melouk, have worked closely with the Commission to put high oleic peanuts on Oklahoma farms.
Chamberlin says recent releases include the Red River Runner, which Kubicek named. Ole’, a Spanish-type peanut, was released last year and Venus, a Virginia-type, is being released this year. Others are in the pipeline.
“Mike had tremendous foresight to identify this need back in the ‘80s,” she says.
He’s particularly proud of the Red River Runner. “It’s a high yielding, high quality peanut with a long shelf life and is heart healthy,” he says. “High oleic is now the benchmark for Southwest peanut production.”
He says a chance meeting with a candy company representative was a key factor in initiating high oleic breeding work.
Joe D White, current chairman of the Oklahoma Peanut Commission, says that’s not unusual for Kubicek. “We have not always known where we were going,” White says, “but Mike always had us in the right place. He would tell us where to be. He’s like a good coach to get us in position to be successful.”
White adds that Kubicek is “passionate about everything he does. He’s a great leader and a great friend.”
Relationships are key
Kubicek turns the tables and says accomplishments come because of the research team at OSU and USDA-ARS and the board of directors. “I’ve been fortunate to build relationships,” he says. “That makes the difference.”
He insists that integrity is the basis for success in the peanut industry or anywhere else. “That’s how I try to live my life,” he says. “The experiences you have teach you things. You just have to put it in practice.”
He credits a lot of his accomplishments to Kianna, “the First Lady of Oklahoma Peanuts and the hardest working person I know. She’s also my best critic, especially on written documents that deal with policy. She also works the farm, runs the combine and we feed stock together.”
The two have worked fairs, schools classrooms and other venues preaching peanuts. They once did a presentation for a school in Moscow, set up by Jeremie Kubicek, Mike’s son who works with a leadership development company.
He lists special events—too many to detail—that stand out in his career. “We built a peanut field in New York’s Grand Central Station.” That came shortly after the salmonella scare. “We could have pulled back and done nothing but we decided to take it head on,” he says.
Chamberlin grew the peanuts and sent them to New York. “People stopped by the peanut field and had their pictures made with a real peanut farmer. They talked to exhibitors. We found out that the public has a lot of trust in farmers.”
He recalls making the world’s largest peanut butter and jelly sandwich on the grounds of the Oklahoma Governor’s mansion, a 695-pound snack.
The Commission donated peanuts to rescue workers following the Oklahoma City bombing and recalls EMTs and nurses saying they found comfort in cracking peanuts as they waited to get back to rescue efforts.
Kubicek says the Oklahoma Peanut Commission always finds a receptive audience in Washington. “Legislators ask: ‘Where are my peanuts?’ We make sure the delegation always has peanuts available. We open a lot of doors with a bag of peanuts.”
He and the Commission have opened a lot of those doors over the years, shaking loose funds to improve peanut production for Oklahoma peanut farmers. He says he will miss the relationships he’s enjoyed with folks throughout the industry but will retire without looking back. He’s ready to take on the farm full-time.
“Maybe I’ll get things done on time now,” he says.
Ron Sholar, long-time Oklahoma State University Extension peanut specialist, takes over as executive director of the Oklahoma Peanut Commission. In his former position he worked closely with Kubicek and recognizes the impact he’s had on the industry.
“Mike has worked tirelessly and successfully on behalf of the Oklahoma peanut industry,” Sholar says. “It’s hard to imagine anyone having had a more profound effect on the entire industry.
“Producers greatly appreciate that Mike has always fought fiercely for their interests, and he won most of those battles. But he always did that in a way that didn’t alienate others. On the contrary, while he worked directly for peanut growers, he also had the trust and confidence of other segments of the industry.
“He will be missed enormously.”
Mike Kubicek has worked for peanuts for 22 years. He’s passionately promoted Oklahoma peanuts and worked hard to maintain the industry as a viable enterprise for the state. He’s garnered respect from corporate leaders, legislators, media, scientists, and, above all, the farmers with whom he identifies.
He says he’ll follow General MacArthur’s advice and “just fade away,” back to where he started, an Oklahoma farmstead that offers plenty of hard work and long, fulfilling days. He may no longer work for peanuts but after 22 years he’s not likely to get them out of his system either.