After an extremely rocky winter and spring, Virginia peanut growers are optimistic their products will be making a comeback in the hearts and cupboards of American consumers.
Demand for peanut products plummeted last winter due to a national salmonella food safety scare that was traced to one processor. Even before that, the supply of peanuts from previous crop years had built to levels that dramatically depressed farm prices.
This spring Virginia farmers planted 50 percent fewer peanuts than in 2008, down to only 12,000 acres. However, on June 2 Nielsen News reported that national peanut butter sales had returned to historically high levels. In fact, they were up 3 percent over the same period in 2008. That has given industry insiders and growers hope that perhaps the worst has passed for the peanut industry.
“I think we have turned the corner from the salmonella problem. And the opinion surveys by the National Peanut Board show that consumers who have resumed eating peanut butter increased sharply by 43 percentage points, to 70 percent nationwide,” said Del Cotton, executive director of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association.
“You would expect peanut butter sales to be doing well in the economic conditions we are all facing,” Cotton added.
“The manufacturers have done a good job in trying to offer discounts on peanut products to encourage people to go back to using them,” said Southampton County farmer M.L. Everett Jr., who also serves on Virginia Farm Bureau Federation’s board of directors. “That’s probably caught the consumer’s eye.” Everett said he was in a store a few months ago and all peanut products were on sale. “They all had big red stickers on the shelves.”
Ironically, Everett won’t benefit from any resurgence this growing season. Like many growers, he and his son Lewis, who’ve grown the legumes for years, chose not to plant peanuts this year. But he’s pleased with how the industry has worked to address the issues of both food safety concerns and over-supply. “I think it’s important that we give the National Peanut Board credit for getting the information out about our product being safe,” Everett said. “Over the years as a producer, I used to question whether the money I was putting into the NPB was worth it. Now I thank God for them, because we have another tool in getting the word out that our product is safe.”