“Farming conversations with me don’t usually go very far before we start talking about peanuts,” says long-time Dinwiddie, Va., grower Billy Bain.
Bain is literally “Mr. Peanut” in the V-C area, winning the first ever Mr. Peanut Award, sponsored by Planters Peanut Company. During his farming career that spans parts of six decades, he has also won Virginia’s top environmental and conservation award and was the 2009 Virginia Farmer of the Year. Now, he has been named the 2014 Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner for the Upper Southeast region.
He is a third-generation Virginia farmer, who helped his mother manage the farm after his father died when Billy was junior in high school. It took time away from the farm, serving in the Army, to convince him that farming was the right career path.
When he returned to the farm, he started on 200 acres, and the mainstay was peanuts. Now, he farms about 3,500 acres and peanuts are still a big part of his farming operation.
In addition to growing peanuts, Bain grows cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat and raises beef cattle.
Cattle, like peanuts, have always been a part of his farming operation. “Being in the heart of tobacco country, some people have asked me why I never grew tobacco. My answer is always the same—because my father grew it,” Bain laughs. The farm was once a dairy and much the same answer applies to why he didn’t follow that path, too, he adds.
A quick tour of the meticulously renovated 1850 circa Virginia farm house in which he lives gives one an insight into the success Bain has had as a farmer. From the refinished green tin roof, to the polished wood floors everything in the old house has a place.
Likewise on his farm, well-maintained trucks, tractors and other farm equipment show a similar attention to meticulous detail at B&B Farms in Dinwiddie.
Reflecting on his career in agriculture, the Virginia grower says he never thought he would live to see the day that soybeans, or any grain crop for that matter, would be more profitable than peanuts.
“We had a few bushels of soybeans left over in storage recently, and we were able to sell those beans for $15 a bushel. The increase in grain prices makes it hard for growers to stay in peanuts and even harder for new growers to plant the crop,” Bain laments.
As long as we can make it work economically, peanuts will always be a part of this farm, he contends. One way he makes it work is to combine peanuts and cows. He feeds peanut hay to his beef cows, noting that it is almost as nutritious for cattle as alfalfa and better than any other grass hay he has grown.
“We bale the peanut hay in large round bales, and when we get to pasture with it, we cut the strings and move it about 30 feet, then we pick it up, move it about 50 feet and set it down for the cows to eat. By doing it this way we virtually eliminate waste and get full benefit from peanut hay,” he explains.
Taking the crop residue off his peanut fields takes away some of the nutrients, but he it more than compensates in his rotation program. He follows peanuts with wheat to add tilth back to the soil. After wheat is harvested in the spring, he plants double crop soybeans, making full use of some of his best farmland. Soybeans are followed by one or two years of corn or cotton, prior to putting land back into peanuts.
Choosing right variety important
Choosing the right variety of peanuts is more than an agronomic choice for the Virginia grower. He plants mostly Bailey variety, because the combination of yield potential, quality and disease resistance. He also plants Gregory and Sugg because of the larger kernels and high percentage of jumbo kernels.
“I sell a part of my peanuts through the Peanut Growers Marketing Association. Dell Cotton, who heads that organization, does an outstanding job of finding niche markets for Virginia peanuts. Many of those markets require larger kernel peanuts, so we plant part of our peanut land to fill that market niche,” he explains.
Last year, he had several fields top 5,500 pounds per acre, though some of his peanuts were on more gravelly, lighter soils that kept his overall farm yield down a bit from those levels.
From a marketing standpoint, Bain learned early on a valuable lesson: Having crops in storage is tantamount to getting optimum prices. As a result, he has a large on-farm storage capacity. In some cases, he notes, storing peanuts from one year to the next has made a huge difference in profitability.
Being profitable and being a good steward of the land go hand-in-hand for the Virginia grower. It is a principle that goes back to his days of helping his father on the farm. “He was very meticulous in how he went about farming and how he cared for the land, and hopefully I’ve carried some of those lessons into my farming career,” Bain says.
A big part of his environmental and conservation program has been a switch to strip tillage a few years back. We use the same equipment to strip till all our land, which saves us money on equipment cost. And, going to strip tillage has saved us a lot of money on fuel costs, he adds.
His strip tillage program played a big role in Bain winning Virginia’s top environmental and conservation award a few years back. His environmental practices and agricultural diversity also helped him win the Virginia Farmer of the Year award in 2009.
Resistant weed problems spread
“We are seeing more and more resistant pigweed coming into our area, so we have tweaked our burn down program to try and help us stay ahead of that problem,” Bain says. “Cutting back on herbicide use helps us with costs and adds to our efforts to restore wildlife habitats and helps us maintain other environmental and conservation programs on our farm,” he adds.
He does a burn down two to theree weeks ahead of planting, using Roundup and 2,4 D, plus alachlor. Just prior to cracking he comes back with metachlor or some other herbicide with a different mode of action to guard against invading pigweed.
Going to the strip tillage system also has helped Bain better manage peanut disease problems. “The residue we get from strip tillage keeps vines from touching the soil and seems to help significantly with a number of diseases that seemed to be more severe before we switched to strip tillage,” he explains.
As with all his farming practices, strip tillage has specific place and purpose at B&B farms, which is located between Stony Creek and Dinwiddie, Virginia, about an hour drive south of Richmond.
The Virginia farmer manages the nutrient needs of his peanuts in large part from previous corn or cotton crops. “We have to be very timely and very careful with our soil sampling program to be sure we have adequate nutrients in the soil for peanuts,” he notes.
He boosts the nutrition level of his peanut land as part of his disease management program. He notes that he adds two shots of an 8-11-0 liquid fertilizer when he applies his first fungicide spray, which is Stratego. He comes back with Bravo and adds some boron to the fungicide-fertilizer mix.
“We also pay special attention to the Peanut Hotline, provided by the Virginia Peanut Growers Association. We also get a lot of help from Mike Parrish, our county agent,” Bain stresses.
Each year, the Virginia grower hosts Extension leaders, all the vendors from whom he buys products, and state and national political leaders as sort of a thank-you get together to acknowledge the help he gets from each of these people.
“Each of us promotes agriculture in general and peanuts in particular in programs like bringing city school kids to the farm to show them how farming works. It’s all a part of being a farmer and being proud of the profession we’ve chosen,” Bain concludes.