Peanut acreage smaller,
but higher quality in 2013

Greg Gill discusses the left over vines after the peanut harvest is complete. It's common to bundle the vines and use is for cattle feed. Gill said they get plenty of protein from the left over peanuts.
TD Photo ~ Megan Heyl
Megan Heyl
Staff Writer

Peanuts are a popular crop across Arkansas. They are rugged, grow well in dry environments and take little spraying.

"Peanuts are about the toughest plant you can come up with," said Chris Henson, manager at Birdsong Peanuts in Portia.

According to the National Peanut Board, peanut roots absorb nitrogen from the air which provides enrichment and nutrition to the plant and soil, so peanuts require little to no fertilization.

Peanuts can also grow well in a non-irrigated field, which is why local farmer, Greg Gill, became interested in the crop. This is his third year growing peanuts and he has increased his crop to 2,500 acres this year from 1,500 last year.

"It costs a lot of money to irrigate this many acres," Gill said as he walked through one of his peanut fields during harvest.

Gill said that he wasn't quite sure what he was getting into when he started farming peanuts. "The equipment is completely different and it's a much slower process than any other crop I grow."

Peanuts are typically planted after the last frost of the season sometime in April or May. Water is necessary during kernel development to produce a healthy crop. If rainfall is not satisfactory, irrigation is recommended at this stage and peanuts usually yield more per acre in a well-irrigated field.

Henson said that water is not the enemy of peanuts and in fact peanuts don't absorb water in the way rice does. The only thing farmers need to really worry about is if the peanuts are setting in water long enough to cause rot.

When the plant is ready for harvest, about four or five months after planting, the process happens in stages. According to the National Peanut Board, the soil must be at the right moisture level for harvest. A digger loosens the soil and cuts through the tap root of the plant and a shaker follows, shaking the dirt from the plant and flipping it upside down so the peanuts which were buried in the soil are left to dry in the sun. After drying, a combine separates the peanuts from the plant and collects them into a hopper. The peanuts are then sent to a facility for further processing.

Birdsong Peanuts works as a buying point. The company contracts with peanut farmers all across Arkansas to purchase the crops they produce. Trailers are provided for the farmers during harvest and return to the facility loaded down with the green peanuts. The peanuts are still too wet and must be reduced to 10 percent moisture content.

After that, the peanuts are thoroughly tested and graded for quality. Crops are not mixed until the testing is complete. Then the peanuts are ready for shipping to manufacturing plants.

"Peanuts have a million uses," Henson said. "Peanut butter is king, but peanuts are also used for paint, oil and biofuel. The shells are used as feed, burning pellets and composting agents. Every part of the peanut is used."

Even the vines left discarded in the fields are often bundled for cattle feed. Gill said this is something he's been doing with his vines, and the cattle always eat all of the peanut vines first.

Peanuts are especially good in Arkansas because crops here remain untouched by the many fungi that have developed in other states. Gill said he rotates his crops between corn and peanuts every year to help prevent the build up of disease. Fields that were growing peanuts last year are growing corn this year and vice versa. He also said the two crops work well because the nutrients left in the soil by the peanuts help the corn.

Despite its success, Henson said that peanut farming in Arkansas has decreased this year. However, the crops Birdsong has received have been of much higher quality and he said that they haven't had one bad crop.

Gill is not concerned about the future of peanut farming. "It's been a good experience and it's good for the soil," he said. "I think it's here to stay."

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