Defining the word ‘sustainability’ is much like defining ‘happiness.’ The meaning depends on whom you ask and maybe when you ask them. For peanuts, however you define the word, the story starts in a field on a farm.
On a mid-March morning in Macon County, Ga., Donald Chase was planting his corn into the peanut residue left in the field from the previous year’s crop, which was feeding the soil for this year’s crop. “For my money, that (the peanut hay) is some of the best fertilizer I can get.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the second article of Southeast Farm Press series “Peanut: It’s Sustainable” that will highlight the U.S. peanut industry’s sustainability story, and discuss the ways farmers and the industry excel in sustainable practices and what can be done on the farm and in processing to make these practices even better. The series is sponsored by AMVAC/Thimet.
Chase farms peanuts, corn and raises chickens near Oglethorpe, Ga. He is on the board of directors of the Georgia Peanut Commission and the current chairman of the American Peanut Council Sustainability Initiative Task Force. He has never thought the peanut wasn’t a sustainable crop in any sense of the word. “We just didn’t speak of it in those terms as much.”
From its fertility-friendly physiology and growing habits to its environmentally-accommodating footprint on the farm to its powerful nutritional presence on tables across the world, the peanut has strong sustainable tendencies and story to tell to whomever wants to listen.
Consumers know peanuts are a healthy staple of any diet, and anything the industry does to promote peanut’s sustainability going forward can be leveraged off its already positive reputation, he said.
But one aspect of the equation shouldn’t get lost in any discussion about the buzzword ‘sustainability.’
“For me, sustainability is also about economic viability. Can I continue to do what I’m doing and can I be profitable enough to maintain a business? And there’s a lot that goes into that, and I get the idea that our consuming public may not see sustainability in that light, but they need to. They need to know we want to do good things for our soils, for our environment but if we can’t be profitable in the meantime, we won’t be able to do those things,” said Chase, as he turned the corn planter to make another pass in the field.
Economic viability and environmental stewardship aren’t divergent philosophies when it comes to producing peanuts or most other crops. Today, more than in any time before, the two ideas merge well on peanut farms, where technology and cultural practices have led to more precise and efficient production of peanuts in that few decades.
But peanut sustainability isn’t guaranteed. Looking back to the not too distant past, peanut farmers enjoyed good success and yields right up until the tomato spotted wilt virus hit in the 1990s. “And that wasn’t sustainable,” Chase said. “It was, ‘Can I stay in business or is tomato spotted wilt going to wipe us out,’” he said.
The industry responded to the threat and thrived, but, again, that is not a guaranteed future. The industry continues to respond to production threats, and peanut farmers continue to embrace new and better ways to remain environmental stewards and in business.
As long as peanut’s well-established research, development and educational apparatuses remain strong, and with new cutting-edge plant-breeding techniques becoming available for peanuts, “I can’t help but believe we will become even more sustainable in the future,” Chase said.
The APC Sustainability Initiative Task Force is now discussing with other peanut industry partners and groups the best way to gather additional data, and better use data already collected, about on-farm production practices used by peanut farmers, information which can be used to further showcase and back up the sustainability message the industry wants to champion now and in the future, Chase said.
The task force has been around awhile and is charged to ‘forge a clear common understanding of what sustainability means within the peanut industry.’ There is discussion currently taking place on the best way to approach this.
One avenue the APC task force is looking to is the Field to Market program. The non-profit 501c3 organization in the last decade has become a tool and vehicle other commodities, such as rice, corn, soybean, wheat and cotton, use to measure their environmental footprints and promote their sustainable practices throughout the food supply chain.
As noon approached that mid-March day on the Chase farm in south-central Georgia, Donald backed the corn planter to the seed tender. His father, Glen Lee, 80, swung the tender’s conveyer tube into action, and together the two farmers loaded more corn seed into the hoppers. It was just a snapshot in time on the Chase farm. But if you pulled back far enough from their farm and if you used the right set of eyes, you could look down from above and see similar scenes taking place all across the U.S. peanut belt and farming landscape. And in those scenes you’d see two, three or even four generations working together in a field on a farm. Maybe that’s the truest definition of sustainability.