For decades, Mississippi’s top commodities have included poultry, soybeans, cotton and corn. But did you know many Mississippi farmers have added another crop to their rotation? Peanuts are now being grown in 34 of Mississippi’s 82 counties – a relatively new crop for the Magnolia State.
“Most peanuts are grown in Georgia, Florida, Alabama, the Carolinas and Virginia, but in 2011 there was a national peanut shortage, so the prices of peanuts were high,” says Brendan Zurweller, peanut specialist for Mississippi State University Extension. “Those high peanut prices created a lot of interest among farmers, and Mississippi saw our peanut acreage jump from 15,000 acres in 2011 to 44,000 acres in 2012 –approximately a three-fold increase.”
In 2018, 128 Mississippi farms harvested 23,547 acres of peanuts, which translates to about 89 million pounds.
“We did see a drop in peanut acreage for 2018 because changing prices influence growers, but Mississippi still produced about 45 tons of peanuts,” Zurweller says. “That created about $18 million in revenue, so peanuts are still economically important to our state.”
The phrase “working for peanuts” commonly means a person is paid very little, and if you say it to peanut farmers, they might laugh at the irony. Because there’s no longer a shortage, peanuts are no longer a high-dollar crop like they were seven or eight years ago. Even though peanut prices have declined, Mississippi growers like Scott Flowers are still incorporating them into their crop rotation. Along with his dad, Harry, and brother, Graydon, Flowers grows between 300 and 650 acres of peanuts each year in addition to cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat at Home Cypress Farms in Lyon.
“I enjoy growing peanuts because it’s a really important food for our country,” Flowers says. “It’s the only one of our crops that we actually see on grocery store shelves. Our other crops are processed in different ways, but our peanuts go straight to peanut butter or to eat as they are.”
Many Mississippi farmers have found peanuts to be a beneficial rotation crop because it puts nutrients such as phosphorus and potassium back into the soil.
“Peanuts help build the soil for the next crop,” Flowers says. “If we plant cotton on the field the year after peanuts, it really thrives and grows quicker. It’s like the peanuts give it a jump-start.”
Peanuts are typically planted between mid-April and late May, and the growing season lasts around 140 days. Because peanuts grow underground, farmers have to invest in a specialized piece of equipment called an inverter to dig up their peanut crop at harvest time in October.
“Harvesting can be a big challenge to growing peanuts, because you practically have to harvest them twice,” Zurweller says. “First, you have to dig them up with the inverter so the peanuts are above ground. Then they have to dry out before you go back through with the combine. If peanuts sit in the field too long, then harvest loss can increase.”
It takes four to seven days for the peanuts to dry, so farmers have to keep a close eye on the forecast.
“It’s always a challenge,” Flowers says. “The tricky part is if you invert them, and it rains, they can deteriorate. Harvest is slow, too. With peanuts, you can only combine about 15 acres per day. In comparison, with soybeans you can combine 100 to 150 acres per day.”
Another challenge to harvest is the amount of dust.
“Peanuts create so much dust, you can hardly see the combine,” Flowers says. “But hopefully it’s worth it in the end.”
The payoff isn’t just about the money. Flowers says he has learned much about the health benefits of eating peanuts since he started growing them. They’re convenient to eat and full of nutrients, including antioxidants, iron, magnesium and fiber.
“The American Diabetes Association and the Heart Association both recommend peanuts as a healthy source of protein,” he says. “It’s also a great protein source that isn’t meat. My kids eat a lot of peanut butter sandwiches. The peanuts taste great when we boil or roast them right out of the field.”
Flowers’ two sons, Jonathan (7) and Gaines (9), are already growing their own peanuts in a backyard garden.
“They help quite a bit with the garden,” he says. “They like riding the tractors. I try to help them enjoy the land.”