February 22, 2012 Edition

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Peanut farming not new to Gills

Colbert Gill, at his home in Cherokee Village, holds a clipping of an article about his peanut crop that ran in The Times Dispatch in the mid-70s. Gill's last peanut crop was in 1980, and he had farmed peanuts as a youngster with his father, Olus Gill. Last year, Colbert's son, Greg Gill, began peanut farming, and this year Greg's son, Gary, will have his own peanut crop, becoming the fourth generation of Gills to farm peanuts.
Susan Johnson
Contributing Writer

Rising costs in fuel and irrigation could make peanuts the crop of choice for area farmers.

In 2010, approximately 600 acres of peanuts were produced in Lawrence County. Last year that number rose to 2,500 acres and is expected to increase to 10,000 this year.

Last year local farmer Greg Gill became the third generation of Gills to produce the crop, planting 725 acres of peanuts. He plans to plant 1,500 acres of peanuts this year.

"It's becoming more feasible to plant peanuts due to the rising fuel cost and the cost of pumping water," Greg said. "They're a lot more economical to produce."

Greg said local farmers were approached by a representative of Birdsong Peanut Company, based in Alabama, in the spring of 2010, concerning the prospects of peanut production. However, by the time he had completed the research and had the special equipment in place, it was last year before he joined fellow Lawrence County farmers in peanut production.

Peanut farming requires more specialized equipment, namely a digger and harvester.

"Peanuts grow in the ground so you have to have a digger, which digs them and turns the leaves over," Greg said. "They have to dry for three to five days, and then they are harvested with a piece of equipment that looks somewhat like a hay baler that separates the hull from the vine. You can use a regular plainer but the blades have to be changed."

Greg said each of these pieces of equipment are pulled by a tractor, which farmers already have.

"I actually did rather well, even though the prices were lower than they are now," he said.

Greg added this year should be even more profitable with better prices and the prospect of a buyer locating in Lawrence County.

"Last year I had to haul my loads of peanuts to a plant in Mississippi," Greg said. "We're hoping to have a receiving plant in the county by this fall."

As with any crop, the elements are always a factor; however, due to the amount of time peanuts must be allowed to dry, they are especially dependent on favorable weather. At present, there are no government subsidies for peanut farming.

"Peanuts are more dependent upon the weather - there's some risk involved," Greg said. "They will definitely decay or rot in the field if you have too much rain. But I think we will get some type of safety net - especially if we go countywide, maybe in a year or two."

This year Greg's son, Gary, is planning to come on board and will have his own peanut crop.

Greg, who raised his peanuts off Hwy. 67 near the Lawrence and Randolph County line, said there were challenges for last year's crop.

"It's certainly been a learning curve," he said. "Like I said, I did OK last year even with the flood, which did affect us. We were later getting them planted. We didn't see the yield we were hoping for, but we did make some money at it. The prices are higher - up about 25 percent from last year."

Greg said he was introduced to peanut farming in the '70s by his father, Colbert, and planted 80 acres of peanuts during 1977-1979, which was his government allotment.

Colbert was given a 74-acre allotment, but things had changed somewhat since his younger days when he helped his father, Olus, on the peanut farm.

"Dad had a peanut farm in '42 and '43 I think," Colbert said. "It was during World War II, and there was a shortage of peanuts. Everything was allotted by the government. Farming was done a little different back then."

Colbert recalled the days when the ground was plowed by use of a mule, instead of a tractor, and then the peanuts were gathered in shocks to allow them to dry. The shocks were then dragged to a stationary thrasher.

"I can still remember pulling those shocks to a thrasher," he said.

In the late '60s allotments again became available, and Colbert was issued a 74-acre allotment, which he utilized until 1980.

By this time, everything was mechanical, including diggers and combines. Colbert said the combines and diggers he had in the '70s were basically the same as those used today with the exception they are now six-row machinery compared to his two-row equipment.

However, one thing has remained the same for peanut growers.

"There was no place to market them," Colbert said. "After they dried on the farm, I stored them in an old house and then hauled them to Portia, where they were put on a boxcar and shipped to the Gold Kist Company in Durant, Okla."

Colbert said later a processing plant was built at Hughes, which made it somewhat easier.

"There's a big push for peanut growers in Northeast Arkansas," Colbert said. "The weather is changing and peanut growing is no longer suitable in Oklahoma and Texas. You need a sandy type farmland. There's a shortage, and buyers are looking for a new location. The soil in Northeast Arkansas is well suited for peanuts."

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