PEANUTS: Historic farm sees future in a versatile legume
By Samantha Lyles, Staff Writer, <a href=”mailto:email@example.com”>firstname.lastname@example.org</a>
A black and white photo hanging on the office wall at Lawson Farms shows a smiling Laurie Lawson and his mother Betty standing in a field surrounded by huge tobacco plants, some with leaves stretching as high as Laurie’s ball cap. Although tobacco hasn’t grown here since 2010, this fertile 3,500 acre spread still yields bumper crops of verdant turf grass, sorghum, soybeans, corn, and winter wheat, and, in recent years, has about 300 to 400 acres dedicated to South Carolina’s latest cash crop: peanuts.
Jim and William Lawson are fourth generation farmers, tending their family’s historic Century Farm in an area west of Darlington and east of Lamar. Technically it has a Hartsville address, but Jim describes it as “the middle of nowhere,” a beautiful swath of country where farm fields abound and colorfully painted beehives are stacked in open lots. It’s perfect country for farming, and the Lawson peanut fields are right now producing an impressive crop. The Lawsons say a lot has changed since their great grandfather began farming in 1834, but the risks and rewards associated with peanuts present unique challenges.
“Peanuts have to be rotated every four years; you can’t put peanuts right back where peanuts grew. You have to wait three years before you plant it again,” says William, explaining that viruses can build if peanuts are not rotated with other non-legume crops. A typical field rotation would be one season of peanuts, then corn for two years, then a year of cotton, and then the field would be ready for peanuts again.
This growing cycle demands a large land base, and overproduction in traditional peanut powerhouse states like Georgia and Virginia has opened the door for South Carolina farmers – specifically those in the Pee Dee – to step up to the plate and take a swing at peanuts.
“Most of our land in this area is nice sandy, loamy land. That’s good for peanuts because they just don’t grow well in wetter land. They tend to rot since they’re a root crop,” Jim says.
With a growing season from early May to mid September, peanuts are exposed to baking summer heat and soaking rain, and these weather extremes can make harvesting tricky. Peanuts need drier weather early in their growing cycle, then require lots of water when the pods begin to mature, but Mother Nature keeps her own schedule.
“Peanuts are very drought tolerant early on, but later when they start to fill pods they do need irrigation,” says Jim, observing that this year’s brutal heat and sparse, intense rainfall will likely make yields “spotty” around the county.
Peanut farmers got a little guidance to help them target just the right harvest date when Darlington County Clemson Extension held a “pod blasting” clinic last week at Darlington’s Birdsong Peanuts buying station. Area farmers brought sample peanuts straight from the field and had them blasted clean with oscillating nozzle pressure washers, exposing the pods’ true color to the discerning eye of Clemson peanut production specialist Dr. Dan Anco.
Anco examined bushels of robust Virginia peanuts (the fancier, larger variety) and smaller runner peanuts (the workhorse variety, mainly used for peanut butter and oil) and parsed them into piles based on their readiness for harvest. Immature pods appeared small and pale, while mature peanuts looked dark brown or black. The lion’s share of sampled runners were somewhere in between, meaning they needed several more days in the field.
“With the drought we’ve seen, there can be a mixed maturity. Some of the pods are taking longer to develop,” said Anco. “But even with pods that appear mature, we need to open them up and check because there could be aborted kernels inside, and they wouldn’t be worthwhile to wait for.”
The Lawsons say that picking just the right moment to harvest peanuts is something of a guessing game. Leave a plant in the field too long and the nuts take on a coppery color and are no good; harvest too soon and the pale, underdeveloped pods are also useless.
“That’s the trick – when do you pull that trigger?” Jim says.
“If there is a good, stable moisture source, you can pick a good point. But with the rain we’ve had this year, the root crop growing straight down and the runner crop growing to the sides are both trying to make, and they won’t mature at the same time. It’s going to be tough,” says William. “You can lose a lot of yield lifting those plants out of the ground at the wrong time.”
“You also have to harvest them the right way, because any peanut that’s not pulled up intact on the vine is lost…Used to be, you would grab hold of the top of the plant and pull it out of the ground by hand,” says Jim, demonstrating how tough it can be to get the plant loose from its tangle of roots, and pointing out how many peanuts are lost in this laborious process. “Thank goodness we missed out on that.”
Modern peanut harvesting at Lawson Farms is handled by computerized diggers and combines that maximize efficiency and produce higher yields. The Lawsons use a six-row digger with metal discs on the outer edges of the trailer that are calibrated by GPS to keep the machine on a precise path, with a variance of less than one inch from the row’s original planting coordinates. Tractor operators like Fields Norwood can pilot their machines onto a peanut row, press a button and let the GPS computer keep things exactly on track. This might seem like a lot of technology just to harvest peanuts, but it’s a major improvement in production.
“They say if you just get a couple inches off the row one side or the other, the amount of yield that you will lose is tremendous,” says Jim.
Guide rods sweep the peanuts toward a rolling chain, which inverts the entire plant so the peanuts – roots and all – are exposed to sunlight and air. After drying for a few days, the pods are harvested by combine and sold to buying stations. Those stations, like Birdsong, largely guide what kinds of peanuts area farmers will grow.
“It’s mostly determined by what your vendor is buying. Sometimes runners yield more, and sometimes the premium on Virginias is a little bit more,” says William. “We’ve found that most people grow some of both types, unless a company wants you to grow strictly one kind.”
Worldwide demand for peanuts is rising ever higher, with developing markets in China and India driving production to about 29 million metric tons per year. Here at home, the peanut is still our most popular nut, with an estimated 94-percent of American households keeping a jar of peanut butter in the cupboard. This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since nutrient-dense peanuts give a lot of nutritional bang for the buck, offering high protein and an unsaturated lipid profile resembling that of olive oil.
In recent years, a rising awareness of peanut allergies has led many parents away from nut-based snacks, but current allergy research (specifically a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association) advises exposing children at high risk of developing peanut allergies to peanut products within their first year to stave off allergy development. Another ongoing study is trying to determine whether allergy development is reduced by mothers eating peanuts during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
Peanuts have been nourishing us for centuries, with the earliest uses dating back to 950 B.C., in South America and Africa. Traders hauled peanuts across the ocean to Spain, and then on to the New World. Commercial peanut growing here in America dates to the early 1800s in Wilmington, North Carolina. Virgina followed suit some twenty years later.
Though farmers saw the potential for a cash crop, no one imagined such versatility for the humble peanut as did scientist George Washington Carver. In 1916, at a time when the boll weevil had devastated cotton crops, Dr. Carver published “How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it For Human Consumption.” Many cotton oil mills switched over to peanut oil refining, and the peanut plants also provided food for sharecropping families and livestock.
Dr. Carver experimented with hundreds of uses for peanut fats, sugars, gums, and resins, and developed legume-based chili sauce, mayonnaise, coffee, charcoal, rubber, plastics, and axle grease – among many other things. Not all these inventions caught on, but it’s beyond question that the agricultural innovation of this peanutty professor helped southern farmers survive a very bad patch.
Carver’s beloved peanut is occupying an ever-larger spot in modern South Carolina farms. As of 2014, some 420 farmers are tending 106,000 planted acres of peanuts and producting 403 million pounds per year. This amounts to about ten percent of the nation’s annual peanut crop.
The Lawson brothers say that even with all the demand, the present glut of available peanuts has driven the price down some, making peanut farming a little less profitable than it used to be.
“It’s not just peanuts. We do have an excess of just about every crop we produce in Darlington County,” says William.
“Farmers should be proud; we’ve overproduced. In fact, we’ve overproduced so many crops, we’ve almost grown ourselves right out of some markets,” Jim adds.
Still, the Lawsons agree that few other crops can match peanuts for their gambling allure – farming as a high-stakes game of Keno.
“There’s lots of decisions to make, and you just hope you make the right ones,” William says, shrugging and grinning. “It’s just fun all the way around.” Mobile users: Click link to view photos: Peanuts at Lawson Farm
Slow Cooker Thai Noodle Soup
Start to finish: 4-8 hours
Serving Size: 16.3 oz.
1-pound pork tenderloin, cut into 1-inch cubes
¼ cup creamy peanut butter
1 cup red bell pepper, julienned
6 cups fat-free chicken broth
1 cup low-fat coconut milk
2 tablespoons rice or white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 medium garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces lo mein noodles or fettuccini, cooked al dente
1 cup snow peas, blanched, stringed, and thinly sliced
½ cup thinly sliced scallions
8 lime wedges
Place pork, bell pepper, chicken broth, coconut milk, vinegar, crushed red pepper and garlic in a slow cooker. Cover and cook on a low-heat setting for 8 hours or a high-heat setting for 4 hours. Stir in peanut butter.
Heat noodles for 1 minute in a microwave and divide into 6 large soup bowls. Top with pork and its broth, sliced snow peas and scallions. Serve with lime wedges. Makes 6 servings.
Start to finish: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Serving Size: 1/3 cup
1 large egg white
3 cups dry roasted, unsalted peanuts
1/2 cup sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Preheat oven to 300°F. In a medium bowl, beat egg white with 1 tablespoon water until frothy. Add peanuts; toss to coat well. If necessary, pour peanuts into a strainer and let any excess liquid drain off. Combine remaining ingredients in a resealable plastic bag; mix well. Add peanuts and toss gently to coat evenly. Spread peanuts in a single layer on a nonstick baking sheet. Bake at 300°F, in center of oven for 15 minutes. Stir peanuts, reduce heat to 275°F, and bake 45 minutes. Remove peanuts from the oven and loosen with a spatula. Cool in pan 30 minutes. Store in tightly covered container. Makes 9 servings.
Triple Peanut Butter Cookies
Start to finish: 30 minutes
Serving Size: 1 cookie
1¼ cups packed light brown sugar
1 cup all-natural peanut butter (creamy or chunky)
2 large eggs
1 cup low-fat peanut flour
¼ cup chopped roasted peanuts
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/8 teaspoon salt
Preheat the oven to 350.
In a medium bowl, beat together brown sugar and peanut butter with a wooden spoon. Beat in 1 egg at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in peanut flour, peanuts, baking soda, vanilla and salt.
Roll dough into 1½-inch balls. Place balls two inches apart on a cookie or baking sheet lined with parchment paper or foil. Use a fork to make criss-cross marks on tops of cookies and to flatten to about ½-inch thickness. Bake 10 minutes or until cookies are just set. Transfer cookies (still on parchment or foil) to a wire rack; cool completely. (Cookies will firm up upon baking.)
Notes: If desired, stir ½ cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips, and/or golden raisins or dried cranberries into the dough.
Makes 30 cookies
Peanut Butter and Banana Quesadilla
Start to finish:10 minutes
Serving size: 1 quesadilla
2 Tablespoons peanut butter
2 (6 inch) whole wheat flour tortillas
½ cup fresh banana slices
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
Spread peanut butter over one tortilla. Top with banana slices and cinnamon. Close quesadilla with remaining tortilla. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat; coat with cooking spray. Add quesadilla and cook 2 to 3 minutes per side or until golden brown. Cut into four wedges and serve immediately.