Digging in the Dirt
The peanut business in Virginia is all it’s cracked up to be, and more
Chris Parker is checking to see if there is money underground. He leans over a small plant and brushes aside its lush, feather-like leaves. Reaching under it, he tinkers with the soil and pulls out a shell half the size of his thumb.
Parker has helped it get to this point by fending off disease and insects. A few more weeks, weather permitting, and the
contents of the shell — a peanut — will be ready to start the journey from dirt to somebody’s mouth.
About four years ago, Parker, a lifelong farmer, reintroduced peanuts to his Woodview Farms outside of Wakefield, Va. He had been planting peanuts since 1976, but, like many farmers, stopped when Congress killed a New Deal-era price-support program in 2002. Amid slumping grain prices and advances in peanut science, Parker decided to give it another whirl.
“I was looking to get a little more income off each acre I was planting,” he says. “I can’t say growing a peanut is any better or worse than another crop. But with the new varieties of peanuts, you’re getting a little more yield out of them. So that’s a plus for everybody.”
A LONG HISTORY
One hundred and seventy-eight years ago, Dr. Matthew Harris became the first American to turn peanuts into a commercial crop, harvesting them on his farm near Waverly, Va., and selling them to neighboring farmers and townspeople for a few cents.
After the Civil War, others followed his lead, finding the sandy loam soil in southeastern Virginia to be the perfect medium for bountiful peanut harvests. By 1880, Harris and his partners started the first factory in the country to clean and market peanuts.
There have been fits and starts in the intervening years, but today, approximately 175 Virginia farmers harvest 111 million pounds of peanuts on about 24,000 acres. They farm mostly in the Peanut Row jurisdictions north and south of U.S. 460, where road signs and tiny storefronts beckon travelers to sample the local wares.
At 2% of the U.S. total, Virginia is not the top peanut-producing state in the country; that honor belongs to Georgia. But peanuts from Georgia, Florida and Alabama lack the impressive size, texture and flavor of Virginia peanuts. Consequently, you’re more likely to encounter Deep South peanuts in peanut butter or as your unsatisfying snack option on an airline.
In contrast, Virginia markets its offspring as the Cadillac of peanuts, in and out of the shell. The value of peanut production in Virginia totaled $24.2 million in 2019, according to the U.S. Agriculture Department. As Jimmy Laine can tell you, that adds a whole new meaning to the term “working for peanuts.”
Laine’s father-in-law started Wakefield Peanut Co. more than four decades ago in an old logging building just south of the center of Wakefield, population 830. It’s not the biggest operation in Virginia Peanut Country — Birdsong Corp. in Suffolk is the Microsoft of the industry — but it’s plenty big enough.
At peak time, Laine has 20 employees in his family-run operation with a cold-storage warehouse full of 1.3 million pounds of peanuts. A retail store fronts the highway, though Laine’s son Steve says that end of the business is more for marketing than profit.
“Over the years, we added a little bit here and it’s just a lot more than I expected,” Jimmy Laine says with a grin. “I never expected to get to this point.”
THE PEANUT PROCESS
The Laines are the opposite of middlemen. They begin and finish the process. They produce seed for perhaps 100 growers, then take raw peanuts from 15 farmers and turn them into everything from honey-roasted peanuts in a can to chicken feed.
The nitty-gritty intermediaries are farmers like Parker, who seeds his 25 acres in early May, dropping future peanuts a few inches apart in orderly rows.
Peanut plants shoot out of the ground about a month later, 18 inches tall with yellow blooms. Where there’s a bloom, there’s a budding ovary known as a peg, which finds its way into the ground and starts to mature — a legume.
Then it’s a matter of keeping fungus growth at bay and imploring the weathercaster to deliver just the right amount of precipitation — too little and the plants won’t prosper, too much and they’ll drown.
“This year, we started off with wet conditions and then cool conditions. So wet, cool conditions are not good to put a peanut, or especially cotton, through,” Parker says. “If you don’t control them early, you’ve got a problem all year long,” he says.
A high-tech machine spots flawed peanuts and blows them out of the way with a gust of air.[/caption]Peanuts come in four basic types; the Virginia peanut, though not grown exclusively in Virginia, is typically what you think of as a ballpark peanut. It accounts for about 15% of U.S. production. A variety known as Bailey, developed at North Carolina State University, has become a big-time performer because it does a better job resisting disease and adverse conditions.
A high-tech machine spots flawed peanuts and blows them out of the way with a gust of air.[/caption]
The optimum peanut cycle runs 150-160 days, so in September, Parker will harvest his crop with a peanut digger that takes rows of peanuts, pulls them up and inverts them. They’ll sit, shells exposed to the sun, for several days before final collection.
“We’ll put them in drying trailers, carry them to our dryer, dry them down to about 10% moisture or below, and then take them back down to Wakefield Peanut, where they started,” Parker says.
THE EYE SEES ALL
Once upon a time, a group of peanut checkers sat at a table in Laine’s operation as peanuts quickly passed by, pulling ones that looked defective or organizing them in some fashion — think of Lucy Ricardo working the chocolate factory line.
That’s a thing of the past, Jimmy Laine says, thanks to an electronic eye that represents one of Wakefield Peanut’s major investments. The camera device monitors peanuts as they pass along a conveyor belt. If it detects a flaw — a broken shell or residue — it shoots out a gust of air in real-time to blast the defective peanut from the good ones.
“We used to have five or six people sitting in the picking room. There’s nobody in there now,” he says. “This is the best thing we’ve ever done.”
Raw peanuts are sampled and graded by federal and state graders in 500-gram batches to determine the quality and value of each load. That’s critical — a broken hull can cost a farmer 15 to 20 cents a pound. Overall, the prices farmers receive for their produce varies widely, but nationally, Virginia peanuts brought about 22 cents a pound in August, according to the USDA.
Once the peanuts are in Wakefield Peanut’s possession, it’s time for Steve Laine to put on his cooking smock. He routinely rises at 6 a.m. from the active season of September through May to cook raw peanuts in buckets of 12 pounds, three fryers at a time, five minutes at 325 degrees.
“When the peanuts reposition, we get busy,” he says. “If I start cooking a little after 6, we’ll be done by 10. We can do 1,500 pounds in a morning and then they can be cooled down and flavored as we need.”
Steve Laine samples batches, just to be sure he’s on target with the product. “At least I tell myself that’s why I’m doing it,” he laughs. “You don’t want to get too far off the mark.”
With all the energy used on the farm and in production, it’s no wonder that the local utility is an important part of the process.Cold storage alone runs $1,200 a month at Wakefield Peanut, which is served, like most of the area, by Prince George Electric Cooperative. “
The heart of our area is very much into peanuts,” says Renee Chapline, senior vice president of community and member engagement at PGEC. “It’s an important part of our economy.” To underscore the agri-energy ties, Parker and Surry County farmer John Brock both are members of the cooperative’s board of directors.
TO THE WHITE HOUSE
In the tiny community of Bacon’s Castle, Brock is a farmer, middleman, wholesaler, retailer, mail-order businessman and everything in between.
Bacon’s Castle Peanuts is located in a little Surry storefront, just down a two-lane road from the oldest brick house in the state. It’s a vintage country store come to life in a digital era, with bags of peanuts, next to fresh bacon, smoked ham, jam, relishes and crafts that would bring a smile to any grandmother’s face.
A third-generation farmer, Brock tends to about 600 acres, with 30 acres of peanuts, mostly for his store. He’s been frustrated by stagnant prices and the fact that there are no peanut buyers left to contract with in Surry County.
“So, I’m just doing what we did back in the day, and that’s to provide people with a good-quality peanut that they can enjoy,” he says, emphasizing that freshness is the key to success.
For its off-the-beaten-path location, Bacon’s Castle Peanuts has a wide reach. Brock says he is doing route sales to about 125 retailers in Virginia and North Carolina. He’ll work small markets, too, such as a farmer’s market in nearby Williamsburg, not because of what he makes but because of who he sees.
“I sold a lady a bag of salted, in- the-shell peanuts at the farmer’s market on Saturday morning. She calls back on Thursday and wanted to know if she could get 200 bags. I said, ‘Are you putting them in a store? I can give you a tax-exempt status.’
“She says, ‘No, I’m giving them away at my wedding on Thanksgiving Day and they’re going to be a parting gift,’” Brock recalls with a chuckle. “You pick up some stores where they don’t have access to good peanuts and keep going.” Brock’s product has gone to the White House as part of a presentation to President Reagan and overseas to Afghanistan and Iraq as part of care packages.
To the southwest, Good Earth Peanut Co. in Skippers, near Interstate 95, also works the peanut business from multiple angles, growing some of its own crops, buying others from Greensville County farmers, cooking peanuts using a family secret and marketing across the country.
“It’s my grandmother’s recipe that she used to use when she cooked peanuts for us, late at night when I was a kid,” says Lindsey Vincent, who runs the company with his wife, Scott. “As far as I know, it’s not done by any large companies. It’s a special preparation process we put peanuts through, so they’re less oily and less salty, and we make them crunchier.”
This year marks Good Earth’s 32nd year in business — it got its name when Vincent was working with a friend to develop a logo. “I pulled up a vine of peanuts and said, ‘You know, they come right out of the good earth. Maybe we’ll call it the Good Earth Peanut Co.’” It took about six years for the Vincents to transform a side business that kept them cooking until 3 a.m. some mornings into a full-time operation that includes an old family warehouse.
“I just have always loved the country and agriculture. I grew up eating peanuts and peanut butter,” Vincent says. “You get tired of the works sometimes, but it’s a good product and it makes for a good way to make a living.”
On the top of everyone’s mind is the COVID-19 pandemic. Vincent says it has cost Good Earth some business — foot traffic has been down and while curbside delivery at the store has helped a little, revenues are generally down.
“We have a lot of very good and loyal customers and that’s why we’re still here,” he says. “We feel very fortunate.”
The pandemic has led to a shift in Wakefield Peanut Co.’s sales mix, Steve Laine says.
“Our store business may have dropped off a little bit, but we sell a lot of wildlife feed,” he says. “One company in Pennsylvaniawas buying a tractor-trailer load of wildlife feed from us every month and selling it on Amazon. A lot of people are home and I guess they’re just feeding their animals like crazy,” he says.
Brock also saw the pandemic alter people’s buying habits. Some elderly people in Surry County have felt uncomfortable going to a grocery store, and instead shop at Bacon’s Castle Peanuts for ham hocks and fresh eggs.
“They feel safe; they go in and can get out. It’s been very noticeable,” he says.
Regardless, there’s room for improvement. Walton is a new Virginia peanut cultivar developed in part by Virginia Tech researchers. It features better resistance to extreme weather; commercial seed production could be available by 2021. Twenty years ago, the average peanut yield was about 3,000 pounds an acre; Jimmy Laine says peanut upgrades have increased that to 5,000 to 6,000 pounds an acre.
“With these new varieties, we picked up at least 1,000 pounds an acre. We weren’t getting paid as much,” he chuckles, “but it’s working out just fine.”