Peanut growers: Seek rain, information

Like most peanut farmers in the Virginia-Carolina region this summer, Cecil Byrum has been waiting on two things: Rain and information. Both came late. Scattered and spotty showers have been the norm this summer. The information regarding the new provisions of the peanut program was still trickling out of the clouds like a light mist on the wind when the Southeast Farm Press made a tour through Virginia peanut country in late August.

“Right now, one of the most difficult things is the uncertainty, not having the rules and regulations,” says Byrum, who farms with his father, Roland, in Zuni, (pronounced Zun-I) Va.

Had he known that the president was going to sign the farm bill on May 13, 2002, Byrum would not have planted peanuts. Amid the uncertainty, however, he planted the minimum amount of peanuts to protect what he thought would be his quota.

After all, we're talking about peanuts, and this is southeast Virginia. History records the first commercial production near here. Peanuts are as much a part of the culture as a Tidewater brogue.

“For such a small amount of acreage, peanuts have played such a stable part of the income on our farm,” Byrum says. He also scaled back cotton production from 900 to 600 acres, opting for wheat and soybeans.

For the 2002 season, Byrum says he felt “that he owed it to the crop that's been so good to us to go with one more cycle,” despite the lack of information. “We're running out of time to do much learning about how to market our peanuts. The lack of information, combined with the short crop is going to make it very difficult to make an intelligent decision about how to market our crop.”

Needless to say, folks here didn't support the new program. They're still working to find a way to grow peanuts without a quota-based program, amid less income.

In late August, Byrum's computer was advising him against planting peanuts for next year.

But the new program isn't the only concern Byrum has at harvest. Yields have been dropping for the past several years. Producers have yet to get a handle on the drop in yields. Diseases such as tomato spotted wilt virus, Cylindrocladium black rot and Sclerotinia blight are driving up peanut production costs, but the reasons behind the yield decline are still a mystery.

For his part, Byrum has average yields of 3,200 pounds per acre. His father, Roland, averages about 3,400 pounds per acre. Both numbers are down from 3,800 pounds only a few years ago.

“To be able to grow peanuts for $355, I believe peanut farmers will have to average at least 3,700 or 3,800 pounds per acre,” Byrum says. Maintaining those kinds of yields, however, may require disease-resistant varieties as well as new cultural practices. He also believes conservation-tillage may play a role for those who continue to grow peanuts.

In regard to the new peanut program, he finds himself “grateful” for a quota buyout, but reluctant to accept what it means. “I would much rather have the right to grow peanuts than take the buyout money,” Byrum says.

“We didn't support this program,” he says. “I feel like it will be a slow death to peanut production unless there's a contract offered for Virginia-type peanuts” The first contracts offered in the area came in early September: $425 per ton for 25 percent of production.

The quota buyout may help in the short-run, but even that sweetener has its lumps.

He says it's going to be extremely important to keep the buyout money out of the farm account to avoid “muddying the waters. It would be hard to tell if you're making money if you commingle the buyout money in the farm account.”

Byrum's statement to the peanut company was, “Peanut production is going to have to stand on its own. I'm not going to use the buyout to subsidize peanut production.” He sells to Morven Partners and Birdsong Peanuts.

Although he owned quota, Byrum believes the true losers in the buyout will be the landowners. “I truly believe there will be a lot of land that changes hands once this buyout is over with,” he says. “A lot of people will be asking, ‘Why am I doing this?’” Land in southeastern Virginia can fetch more from a developer than it can from a farmer.

“It's almost hard to imagine life without peanuts,” Byrum says, referring to his farm in particular and acreage in southeastern Virginia. Small towns in the area which were already drying up won't survive without the stable income peanuts provided, he believes.

Taking a look at the situation on computer in late August, Byrum can see that he may not be planting peanuts next year. But, even that, decision requires more thought. There's the peanut equipment to deal with. “I don't plan on investing in anything” with regards to peanuts, he says.

He'll likely make the decision about planting peanuts by next February. “We tend to do things long-term,” Byrum says. “We don't decide we're going to grow peanuts one day and then do it the next. We look at which crops work.”

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