How exactly do peanuts grow? Do they grow on a tree? Absolutely not. Do they bloom from a flower? No they do not.
Many people are surprised to learn that peanuts do not grow on trees like pecans or walnuts. Peanuts are legumes, not tree nuts, although we refer to them as nuts.
Unlike most plants, the peanut plant flowers above the ground, but fruits below ground. Seeds are planted after the last frost around April or May when the soil reaches the perfect temperature. The peanut seeds are planted two inches deep, about one to two inches apart in rows.
Watering is a must. Peanut plants need one and a half to two inches of water per week during the development of the kernel. The peanut plant is nitrogen-fixing; its roots form nodules, which absorb nitrogen from the air and provide enrichment and nutrition to the plant as well as the soil.
Then, the peanut seedlings will rise out of the soil approximately 10 days after planting and will grow into a green oval-leafed plant.
Yellow flowers will then begin to appear on the plant approximately 40 days after planting. When the flowers pollinate themselves, the petals fall off and the peanut ovary will begin to form.
As the budding ovary begins to grow, it will grow down into the soil away from the plant forming a stem. The peanut embryo will then penetrate the soil, turn horizontal to the soil surface and begin to mature taking the form of a peanut. The plant will then continue to grow a flower, eventually producing more than 40 pods. Usually the cycle of a peanut will take anywhere from four to five months depending on the type of peanut that was planted.
Peanuts are harvested between 120 to 160 days after planting using a machine called a digger. The farmer will drive the digger up and down the rows using the blades to loosen the root and carefully shake the plant. The digger then gently lays the peanut plant back on the ground for the plant to dry.
Lastly, a machine called a combine will separate the peanuts from the vines, putting the peanuts into a hopper and the vines back into the field. The peanuts are placed into wagons for curing and warm air circulating so that the moisture will be reduced to 10 percent for storage.
Virginia Peanuts have a rich history in the State of Virginia and beyond. From Colonial times to present day, peanuts and the state of Virginia have gone hand and hand. Without the work done by George Washington Carver and Benjamin Hicks however, we might not have the luxury of super crunchy Virginia Peanuts today. In fact, peanuts have become such a staple in our grocery stores today that we rarely stop to think about how they got there. From humble origins to tasty snacking around the world, the mighty peanut has come a long way.
Though the peanut plant probably originated in Peru or Brazil and later grown in Mexico when the Spanish colonists arrived, peanuts were later brought to the southern United States by enslaved West Africans beginning in the 1700s. When they first arrived in America, peanuts were considered a curiosity and a great animal feed, but the turn of the century would boost new technology as well as the research of renowned biologist George Washington Carver, who found around 300 different uses for peanuts and his work transformed the economy of eastern Virginia, and the state as a whole.
George Washington Carver, pictured above, was born a slave and kidnapped as an infant with his mother and they were re-sold into slavery in the deep south. Following the abolition of slavery, George Washington Carver’s former owner tracked him down and raised and educated him. Carver went on to become an artist, educator, chemist, botanist and the man who raised the peanut from a lowly legume to a cash crop that saved the South’s farming economy. His development of uses for the peanut run all the way from soup to soap. Raw peanuts, roasted peanuts, peanuts galore- without Carver’s creativity, the peanut products we know and love today might never have come to be.
Harvesting and Selling Virginia Peanuts
In the late 1890s, Benjamin Hicks, an African American farmer from Southampton County, invented a gasoline-powered machine for stemming and cleaning peanuts. He successfully patented the device but faced a lawsuit from one of the most powerful farm-equipment companies of the time. Hicks won in court in 1901, and the picker he invented helped modernize peanut farming. It was not until the 1900’s when peanuts became extensively grown, partially because they were regarded as food for the poor, and because growing and harvesting were slow and difficult until labor-saving equipment was invented around the turn of the century.
Peanuts have been a part of Virginia’s history dating back to the first settlers. The first known commercial peanut crop of Virginia originated in Sussex County, near the present-day town of Waverly, in 1842. With sandy loam soils ideal for growing peanuts, Virginia quickly became the nation’s leading producer over the next forty years. In 1902, fourteen of the twenty peanut factories operating in the United States were in Western Tidewater Virginia. The production of peanuts in Virginia is concentrated in 8 or 9 counties in the southeastern corner of the state. Peanuts have dug their roots into fields and towns of southeastern Virginia, particularly the counties of Dinwiddie, Greensville, Prince George, Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight and Southampton and the city of Suffolk. This is Peanut Country.
Virginia Peanuts Today
Since the late nineteenth century, peanuts have shaped every part of life in Western Tidewater, including Suffolk, which has been the center of peanut processing and marketing since the 1880s, and Southampton County, which is the heart of peanut farming in Virginia, even today.
Peanuts grown in Virginia are currently produced on about 26,0000 acres of land each year. Depending on the year, acreage ranges from this year’s level to around 26,0000 acres, to averaging in the low 18,000-acre range. Of the 26,000 acres grown in 2017, 24,850 of those acres were Virginia peanuts with the remaining acres being the runner variety. Prior to the change in present legislation in 2002, Virginia typically grew 75,000 acres each year. From raw peanuts to roasted, Virginia is where it happens.
The tradition of peanuts in Virginia is not the only thing that keeps Virginia Peanuts on the rise. Of the four types of peanuts grown in the United States—Valencia, Runner, Spanish and Virginia—Virginia Peanuts are the most highly prized for their extraordinarily large kernels (the highest quality and largest size or grade of Virginia peanuts are known as “super extra large”). Contrary to its name, the Virginia-type peanut is also grown in several other states throughout the United States. Here at Hope & Harmony Farms we grow an estimated 1.5 million pounds of peanuts each year. Peanuts are typically a five-month crop once they have been planted. Planting season typically begins during the first week of May and harvest typically commences in September. To preserve the soil and ensure future generations can farm the land, peanuts are rotated with other crops periodically.
Peanuts are no longer just simple food or animal feed, but considered to be a superfood (the mighty peanut’s nutrition facts might just surprise you) and gourmets everywhere will agree Virginia Peanuts are the absolute best of the best! Hope and Harmony farms is based in the heart of Virginia, where we’ve been a part of the Virginia Peanut tradition for four generations. We’ve learned a thing or two about Virginia Peanuts and how to use them in that time.
For the 200 farmers in southeastern Virginia’s peanut belt, this is a special time of the year: harvest season. Low prices have shrunk production volumes, but nobody is giving up on an iconic food crop that goes back nearly 170 years.
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Todd Cutchin’s peanut farm in Sedley.
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James Porter Jr. leveling peanuts in a truck bed at Indika Farms. Like his father, Porter has worked in the peanut business all his life.
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Joe Blythe, 71, has been growing peanuts for 40 years.
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Farmer Joe Blythe.
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Unpicked peanut plants.
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A tractor at Todd Cutchin’s farm.
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Clint Williams levels peanuts.
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Jimmy Creasey, a veteran season worker at Severn Peanut Co.
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A plant with some 40 pegs (stems), each holding a peanut.
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Dot Gwaltney and her son Billy at Indika Farms.
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The quality control and packaging operation at Hubbard Peanut Company.
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The quality control and packaging operation at Hubbard Peanut Company.
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The quality control and packaging operation at Hubbard Peanut Company.
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The quality control and packaging operation at Hubbard Peanut Company.
In the rising light of a cool spring dawn, brothers Billy and Jesse Gwaltney are preparing for a long day at Indika Farms. They’re glad to finally be moving; heavy rains have held them up for more than a week. That the work can finally begin doesn’t make their task any less daunting, though. They will work until 9:00 p.m. and plant as many as 100 acres. The Gwaltneys are sowing a peanut crop, following in the footsteps of their father, William Gwaltney, Sr., who began growing them in the 1940s. Billy and Jesse have already prepared the ground, plowing long rows, or beds, 36 inches apart. Today, they will attach a planter to their tractor. The planter seems a cumbersome accessory; it is squat and wide, with springs, discs and hydraulic lines stretching the length of it. For all its bulk, however, the planter is a precision instrument, gliding effortlessly over eight beds at a time, depositing one peanut seed every three inches—no more, no less. In a few days, the plants will sprout, and the Gwaltneys will begin the time-honored practice of tending a peanut crop.
Indeed, the Gwaltneys, and about 200 other farmers, are continuing a more-than-160-year-old tradition in southeast Virginia, one that has left an indelible mark on the region’s landscape and culture. It’s hard to miss: the country stores, weathered lettering and all, pawning peanuts to passersby; the level, gray fields stretching to distant tree lines, full of neat rows of bright peanut plants; the aged brick processing plants in downtown Suffolk and the modern facilities that have replaced them. Literally and figuratively, the peanut has deep roots in the fields and towns in this part of the state—chiefly the counties of Dinwiddie, Greensville, Prince George, Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight and Southampton and the city of Suffolk. “I have peanuts growing this year in a field that belonged to my great-great-grandfather,” says Kevin Monahan, who farms near the town of Dendron in Surry County. “There’s a family tradition here, and peanuts are something that I enjoy growing and harvesting. It requires a lot of time and labor, but there’s nothing like the smell of green peanuts in the field at harvest time.”
But tradition only partly explains the endurance of this annual crop, even as the peanut industry has been battered in recent years by oversupply and lower prices. Quality drives demand for any product, agricultural or otherwise, and few dispute the fact that Virginia, while only the ninth-largest American producer of peanuts by number of acres planted, makes some of the best peanuts in the world. Of the four types of peanuts grown in the United States—Valencia, Runner, Spanish and Virginia—the last is most highly prized for its extraordinarily large kernels.
Even though the Virginia-type peanut is grown in other states, it is the only kind planted in the commonwealth. The largest size, or grade, of Virginia peanut is called “super extra large,” and it most often ends up as finger foods and gourmet products. “Virginia peanuts are well known,” says Dell Cotton, Virginia’s top peanut promoter. Cotton serves as executive secretary for the Virginia Peanut Growers’ Association, a farmers’ trade group, and program director for the Virginia Peanut Board, a state agency that administers funds to promote the industry. “There’s not a comparable size in other types of peanuts, so farmers of Virginia-type peanuts get more money for them. For instance, the Runners grown in much of the Southeast are mostly the same medium size.”
Despite the food’s popularity, peanut production in Virginia has steadily dropped over the past several years, owing largely to a decline in available farmland, an oversupply of peanuts and a 2002 federal farm bill that did away with a guaranteed price per ton for peanuts. Whereas Virginia farmers once grew in the neighborhood of 100,000 acres of peanuts annually, the commonwealth now lags far behind other states—among them, the Carolinas and Texas. In 1988, for example, Virginia’s peanut farmers planted 91,000 acres and got more than $600 per ton, thanks to legislation that guaranteed a high price per ton. In 2008, Virginians produced a fraction of that, just 23,000 acres, receiving a price of around $450 per ton. Monahan explains that falling prices are a major reason that many farmers stopped growing peanuts in favor of other crops such as soybeans and cotton. “Peanuts require a lot of specialized machinery that is only good for that one crop,” he says. “A lot of this machinery is getting old, and farmers are having a hard time investing in the repairs and new equipment if they don’t know that they’re going to make a return on that investment. You can only farm for so many years at a loss.”
Even with the tough market conditions, the Gwaltneys, along with other peanut farmers in this state, say they are in this business for the long haul, if only because they have too much money and passion invested in it to quit. “The day I stop growing peanuts is the day I quit farming,” says Billy Gwaltney, 53, an amiable country farmer who speaks with the drawl common south of the James River. As with all farmers, a good peanut crop will help the Gwaltneys handily—and the brothers are optimistic that this year’s harvest will turn out well as long as the weather remains in their favor.
Indika Farms (pronounced in-DIKE-uh) is a family business. As children, the Gwaltney brothers would get off the school bus in front of the farm’s office and help see to the day’s chores. Their mother, Dot, still comes down to help out at the height of the harvest season. Indika Farms has expanded over the years, though Billy Gwaltney notes that the 1,500 acres he and his brother work constitute only a medium-sized farm.
This year, the Gwaltneys will not only grow their own peanuts—about 300 acres of them—but they will also buy peanuts from seven farmers around Windsor in Isle of Wight County, where Indika Farms is located. Indika Farms is somewhat unique because it is a commissioned buyer for Birdsong Peanuts, a Suffolk-based peanut distributor. Area farmers sell their peanuts to the Gwaltneys, who are permitted to write checks for Birdsong. The Gwaltneys have a processing operation on-site, and they clean and shell the peanuts they grow, as well as the ones they buy from other farmers, before the crop is trucked to Birdsong. The Gwaltneys are unlike many other farmers, too, in that much of their harvest becomes so-called “seed peanuts”—that is, peanuts of a certain grade and quality that will be the seeds used to plant next year’s crop.
Because of how the plants grow, Virginia’s peanut belt is limited to land with specific soil conditions. The peanuts are planted in early May, and about a month later the shin-high, oval-leafed plant blooms. The plant’s delicate, yellow flowers send stems, or “pegs,” into the soil below. From each of the 40 or so pegs, a peanut grows underground. Peanut crops demand sandy soil because the ground must be loose enough to allow the pegs to push down a few inches into the dirt. West of Dinwiddie, east of Suffolk and north of the James River, the ground isn’t suitable. Virginia’s peanut belt, then, has clearly defined boundaries.
Peanut plants are more sensitive than one might think. They are susceptible to disease and fungus, and the dewy mornings and humid summer days so common in southern Virginia are the perfect petri dish for organisms that can ruin a crop. “Every time I take that out, it costs me $3,000,” laments Jesse Gwaltney, 48, pointing toward his sprayer—a tractor with a large tank and arms that spread out horizontally to coat the rows of peanuts with fungicides necessary to ensure the crop’s survival.
Come September, after a few months of meticulous care, the peanuts are harvested. Peanut farmers use a “digger” to do the job. It turns the entire plant—leaves, pegs and peanuts—upside down. Rather than immediately whisking away the peanuts for processing, however, farmers do a curious thing: They leave them in the field to dry. The peanuts themselves consist mostly of water, and allowing them to dry in the field for a week reduces their moisture content and gets them ready to be shelled and processed.
“We pray for hot, dry days with no frost,” says Billy Gwaltney. “Frost can ruin them.” Virginia’s weather is actually a mixed blessing. While the weather fosters peanut-destroying fungi and bacteria, it is also what makes Virginia peanuts stand out from those—even of the same type—that are cultivated in more southerly locations. “We let them dry naturally for seven days, and our climate is one of the reasons that our peanuts are some of the best in the world,” says Gwaltney. “These peanuts are cured. Down south, they do a good job, too, but they have hotter weather, which dries the peanuts out quickly and changes the complex of the oil. Our 60-, 70-, 80-degree days cure them a lot slower and keep that good flavor in there.”
All four varieties of peanut plants make peanuts of different grades, each of which has a specific use. Smaller peanuts are pressed for oil, while medium-sized peanuts (those that the Gwaltneys use for seed) are typically sold to processors that make candy and peanut butter. Large peanuts are generally used for products in which the peanut remains whole—flavored or chocolate-covered peanuts, for instance. The largest Virginia-type peanuts—constituting only a small fraction of any farmer’s harvest—are designated super extra large, and these are the gems of the state industry. They become the salted cocktail peanuts and other specialty products, such as in-the-shell, that are a favorite among consumers.
The Gwaltneys’ tidy office—the epicenter of Indika Farms—is dwarfed by mammoth silver holding tanks that store the peanuts the farmers have grown and bought. These tanks, like everything else at Indika Farms, are an important part of getting the peanuts from the ground to the table. Once the peanuts have been collected from the field and had their stems removed by a picker, they are inspected by regulators and moved to the tanks, where they await their turn in the adjacent “sheller.” For all but in-the-shell peanuts, the hulls must be removed and the peanuts separated according to size. The sheller at Indika Farms occupies fully half of a warehouse-sized building. It is a highly mechanized series of instruments that remove the kernels from their shells in rotating drums. The peanuts pass over a series of screens, computerized air jets and gravity separators and emerge whole, clean and ready to be trucked away. At every step of the way, the Gwaltneys, like other peanut farmers around the country, rely on technologies that have made peanut farming more efficient and profitable. Their tractor has a global positioning system and can literally drive itself. “My dad wouldn’t believe how far peanut farming has come,” says Billy Gwaltney.
Peanut farming has come a long way since they were first grown commercially in the 1840s near the town of Wakefield, in Sussex County. In those days, peanuts were considered a curiosity, even good animal feed. Not until the turn of the century, boosted by new technologies as well as the research of renowned biologist George Washington Carver, who found about 300 uses for peanuts, were they grown on a large scale. As peanuts became a popular staple food in the century that followed, demand for them flourished. It has remained strong ever since. Dell Cotton explains that the public’s appetite for peanuts usually increases about 2 or 3 percent each year. Unlike other products, peanuts rarely encounter spikes or declines in popularity, remaining instead a commodity with predictably strong appeal among consumers.
In the town of Waverly, a few miles west of Wakefield on Route 460, the main artery through peanut country, a nondescript building at the Miles B. Carpenter Museum complex pays tribute to the heritage of the peanut. “First Peanut Museum in U.S.A.” boasts the sign on the white clapboard structure, which houses artifacts, pictures and folk art from the Virginia peanut’s storied past—decades-old peanut shellers and graders, for instance, all hand-operated. Shirley Yancey, president of the museum’s board of directors, seems to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the peanut’s history in this state. Born during the Great Depression, Yancey is a lifelong resident of Waverly. She remembers well her father’s fall harvest of peanuts in the 1930s and ’40s, prior to the advent of equipment that allowed one or two farmers to grow hundreds of acres. Yancey says the crop helped see her family through hard times. Before machines replaced human labor, turned peanut plants were “shocked,” or stacked on six-foot-high stakes to dry. “My mother and I would go out where the peanuts had been shocked … where some peanuts would be left on the ground,” she says. “We would pick a hundred pounds of peanuts and put them in a burlap bag and sell them. We got 10 dollars for that bag. I bought my clothes for school and had some money left over.”
Growing peanuts is only the first part of the business, of course. The second part is processing them for consumers. Hubbard Peanut Company, tucked away in the tiny Southampton County village of Sedley, population 1,100, is not the biggest processor in the state, but it is one of the oldest and was the first to process the highest grade—super extra large—on a wide scale. In Sedley, residents keep neat houses with well-groomed lawns, and life seems to drift by at a leisurely pace. A dish on the counter of the town’s post office offers patrons—what else?—peanuts.“Hubs” was founded here in 1954, in a small Cape Cod home owned by H. J. Hubbard and his wife, Dot. They began cooking and selling the peanuts grown so abundantly in the surrounding countryside.
Hubs has grown a lot since those days. In the 1960s, the firm built the first of many additions, creating an industrial processing facility next to the original home, which now serves as the company office. The plant uses modern equipment—a continuous cooker, a cooling tunnel and a salting machine, for instance—and 30 or so employees to process about 1 million pounds of peanuts a year.
The peanuts begin their journey through Hubs’ production line in eight-pound baskets, in which they are given a blanching, or hot water bath, of several minutes. Each of the baskets moves in line through a trough containing the hot water. After the blanching, the continuous cooker ferries the baskets through a second trough, this one containing hot oil, in which the peanuts are roasted. The peanuts are dried quickly, salted, measured by weight and put into packages of all sizes. Throughout the process, Hubs’ employees perform quality control to make sure that only peanuts of superior quality are sold.
The company’s cooking process—blanching them in water and roasting them in oil—has remained unchanged since Dot Hubbard began cooking them five decades ago. Hubs’ sleek, spotless production facility has streamlined the process, allowing the company to process a volume of peanuts beyond H.J.’s and Dot’s wildest imaginings.
Lynne Rabil, one of four Hubbard children and now Hubs’ president, maintains an office in a room of the original home. She knows her workspace well—it was the bedroom she and her twin sisters shared as young girls. Among her responsibilities is acquiring the super extra large Virginia-type peanuts that the company uses to make Hubs’ products. One of Rabil’s local suppliers is Birdsong Peanuts. And one of Birdsong’s many peanut providers is Indika Farms, where the Gwaltneys grow and buy peanuts around Windsor. This, of course, means that some of the very same peanuts that Rabil processes at Hubs came out of the ground only a few miles down the road at Indika Farms.
From Sedley, Hubs peanuts are sold around Virginia and the country, directly to individuals, organizations and stores. Hubs prefers to deal as closely with consumers as possible, only rarely selling their peanuts through a distributor. Hubs’ employees, some of whom have been with the company for decades, pride themselves on their company’s history, the connection to the land that surrounds them and the quality of the product they put on tables. “Being a family business that started here and has stayed here is important to us,” says Rabil. “My mother prepared peanuts the way that farmers’ wives had for generations. Now we take the best of the field, the best of the crop, and prepare them the same old way it had always been done.”
Of course, Hubs has some competition. There are more than a dozen processors in Virginia, the largest being Suffolk-based Planters Nuts (with their iconic Mr. Peanut logo). Other companies have established a strong reputation in the state, too. Virginia Diner Restaurant, for instance, is a fixture along Route 460 in Wakefield, and the gourmet peanut products the firm sells under its own brand name are familiar in many parts of the state; some children sell Virginia Diner peanuts for school fund-raisers. Bacon’s Castle Brand Peanuts and Red Fox Peanut Company are two other, smaller companies in the industry.
Virginia’s peanut growers and processors face many challenges, but Dell Cotton believes that none is insurmountable. Indeed, Cotton has witnessed firsthand the industry’s peaks and troughs over the last two decades—including last year’s salmonella scare. He contends that Virginia’s peanut growers, and the industry as a whole, have plenty of reasons for optimism. Peanuts are a cheap source of nutrition, he notes, and thus remain popular during economic downturns. And they do not require cooking once in the consumers’ hands. What’s more, he thinks that Mother Nature might help end the oversupply problem. “It’s been awfully wet,” he says, “and the number of acres planted will be low this year. That should work all the surplus out of the system.”
Above all, Cotton knows that peanuts are in the blood of farmers in southeast Virginia—people like Billy and Jesse Gwaltney. While there will always be bad seasons and challenging market conditions, not to mention the relentless encroachment of exurban sprawl, these issues can’t devalue the labor that goes into putting Virginia peanuts on family tables, or change the trusted traditions that define Virginia’s peanut belt. And as long as consumers reach for a tin of cocktail peanuts, and as long as the Hotel Roanoke and other establishments continue to serve peanut soup, Virginia’s peanut growers and processors will be happy to serve the demand. For that reason, the yearly cycle of planting, growing and harvesting peanuts goes on. “We may put a few other crops in the ground,” says Billy Gwaltney, “but first and foremost, we’re peanut farmers.”
In a Nutshell:
Number of Virginia peanut farmers: About 200
Price per ton for peanuts: 1988/$600 2008/$450
Farmland in acres in Virginia devoted to peanuts: 1988/91,000 2008/23,000
Counties and cities in Virginia where peanuts are grown: Dinwiddie, Greensville, Prince George, Sussex, Surry, Isle of Wight, Southampton, and the city of Suffolk.
Eat ’em, Buy ’em
For Pete’s Sake, Courtland
Sells peanut pie, fried catfish and barbecued pork.
Virginia Diner, Wakefield
1.888.823.4637 or VaDiner.com
Offers many varieties of seasoned peanuts and peanut pie.
Retail stores: Plantation Peanuts (PlantationPeanuts.com) and Wakefield Peanut Co. (WakefieldPeanutCo.com), both on Rte. 460 in Wakefield.
This article originally appeared on Aug. 28, 2014.
The peanut, while grown in tropical and subtropical regions throughout the world, is native to the Western Hemisphere. It probably originated in South America and spread throughout the New World as Spanish explorers discovered the peanut’s versatility. When the Spaniards returned to Europe, peanuts went with them. Later, traders were responsible for spreading peanuts to Asia and Africa. The peanut made its way back to North America on sailing ships carrying slaves in the 1700’s. Although there were some commercial peanut farms in the U.S. during the 1700’s and 1800’s, peanuts were not grown extensively. This lack of interest in peanut farming is attributed to the fact that the peanut was regarded as food for the poor and because growing and harvesting techniques were slow and difficult. Until the Civil War, the peanut remained basically a regional food associated with the southern U.S.
After the Civil War, the demand for peanuts increased rapidly. By the end of the nineteenth century, the development of equipment for production, harvesting and shelling peanuts, as well as processing techniques, contributed to the expansion of the peanut industry. The new twentieth century labor-saving equipment resulted in a rapid demand for peanut oil, roasted and salted peanuts, peanut butter and confections.
Also associated with the expansion of the peanut industry is the research conducted by George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama at the turn of the twentieth century. The talented botanist recognized the intrinsic value of the peanut as a cash crop. Dr. Carver proposed that peanuts be planted as a rotation crop in the cotton-growing areas of the Southeast where the boll weevil insect threatened the region’s agricultural base. Not only did Dr. Carver contribute to changing the face of southern farming, but he also developed more than 300 uses for peanuts, from recipes to industrial products.
The U.S. government instituted agricultural support programs in the early 1900’s to promote the production of important food crops, including peanuts. Today, the production of peanuts is overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the auspices of farm legislation adopted by the U.S. Congress in 2002.
How The Peanut Plant Grows
The peanut is unusual because it flowers above the ground, but fruits below the ground. Typical misconceptions of how peanuts grow place them on trees (like walnuts or pecans) or growing as a part of a root, like potatoes.
Peanut seeds (kernels) grow into a green oval-leafed plant about 18 inches tall which develop delicate flowers around the lower portion of the plant. The flowers pollinate themselves and then lose their petals as the fertilized ovary begins to enlarge. The budding ovary or “peg” grows down away from the plant, forming a small stem, which extends to the soil. The Peanut embryo is in the tip of the peg, which penetrates the soil. The embryo turns horizontal to the soil surface and begins to mature taking the form of peanut. The plant continues to grow and flower, eventually producing some 40 or more mature pods. From planting to harvesting, the growing cycle takes about four to five months, depending on the type or variety. The peanut is a nitrogen-fixing plant; its roots form modules which absorb nitrogen from the air and provides enrichment and nutrition to the plant and soils.
Photo cred: Texas Peanut Producers.
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Types of Peanuts
Although peanuts come in many varieties, there are four basic market types: Runner, Virginia, Spanish and Valencia. Each of the peanut types is distinctive in size, flavor, and nutritional composition. Within each four basic types of peanuts, there are several “varieties” for seed and production purposes. Each variety contains distinct characteristics which allows a producer to select the peanut that is best suited for its region and market.
- Runner Peanuts
Runners have become the dominant type due to the introduction in the early 1970’s of a new runner variety, the Florunner, which was responsible for a spectacular increase in peanut yields. Runners have rapidly gained wide acceptance because of the attractive, uniform kernel size. Fifty-four percent of the runners grown are used for peanut butter. Runners are grown mainly in Georgia, Alabama, Florida, Texas and Oklahoma.
- Virginia Peanuts
Virginias have the largest kernels and account for most of the peanuts roasted and processed in-the-shell. When shelled, the larger kernels are sold as snack peanuts. Virginia Peanuts are grown mainly in southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina.
- Spanish Peanuts
Spanish-type peanuts have smaller kernels covered with a reddish-brown skin. They are used predominantly in peanut candies, with significant quantities used for snack nuts and peanut butter. They have a higher oil content than the other types of peanuts which is advantageous when crushing for oil. They are primarily grown in Oklahoma and Texas.
- Valencia Peanuts
Valencias usually have three or more small kernels to a pod and are covered in a bright-red skin. They are very sweet peanuts and are usually roasted and sold in-the-shell. They are also excellent for fresh use as boiled peanuts. New Mexico is the primary producer of Valencia peanuts.
Within each four basic types of peanuts, there are several “varieties” for seed and production purposes. Each variety contains distinct characteristics which allows a producer to select the peanut that is best suited for its region and market.
Photo cred: Texas Peanut Producers.
Return to top Where Peanuts Grow
Peanuts are grown in the warm climates of Asia, Africa, Australia, and North and South America. India and China together account for more than half of the world’s production. The United States has about 3% of the world acreage of peanuts, but grows nearly 10% of the world’s crop because of higher yields per acre. Other major peanut growing countries include Senegal, Sudan, Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, Malawi, and Nigeria.
Peanuts are grown commercially in 13 states: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia.
In the United States, six states grow the majority of the U. S. peanut crop: Georgia (which grows about 53% of all U. S. peanuts), followed by Alabama, Florida, Texas, North Carolina and South Carolina. Mississippi, Virginia, Oklahoma, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, and Missouri produce about 7% of the US peanut crop. These states are grouped into three regions. The Georgia-Florida-Alabama-Mississippi region (Southeast) grows mostly the medium-kernel Runner peanuts. The Southwest region (Texas-Oklahoma-New Mexico-Arkansas) grows Spanish, Runner and some Virginia type varieties. The Virginia-Carolinas area grows mostly the large-kernel Virginia type peanut. About 74% of all U. S. peanuts are grown in the Southeast, with the Virginia/Carolina area accounting for 14% and the Southwest, about 12%.
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How Peanuts Are Planted And Harvested
Peanuts are planted and harvested with specialized machinery. Peanut seeds are planted about two inches deep, one every three or four inches, in rows about three feet apart. The seeds do best in sandy soil, especially soil rich in calcium. When the soil temperature is warm (65-70 F.) given enough water the seeds will sprout. In about two weeks, the first “square” of four leaflets will unfold above the peanut field. Thirty to forty days after emergence the plants bloom, “pegs” form and enter the soil. The peanut shells and kernels develop and mature during the next 60 to 70 day period. Depending on the variety, 120 to 160 frost free days are required for a good crop.
When the plant has matured and the raw peanuts are ready to be harvested, the farmer waits until the soil is neither too wet or too dry before digging.
When conditions are right, the farmer drives his digger up and down the green rows of peanuts plants. The digger has long blades that run four to six inches under the ground. It loosens the plant and cuts the tap root. Just behind the blade, a shaker lifts the plant from the soil, gently shakes the dirt from the peanuts, rotates the plant, and lays the plant back down in a “windrow,” peanuts up and leaves down. When dug, peanuts contain 25 to 50% moisture, which must be dried to 10% or less for storage. Peanuts are generally left in the windrows to dry for 2 or more days in the field, then threshed or combined.
The farmer drives his combine over the windrows. The combine lifts the plants, separates the peanuts from the vine, blows them into a hopper on the top of the machine, and lays the vine back down in the field. The peanuts are then dumped into wagons and cured to 10% moisture with warm air forced up through the floors of the wagons. The peanuts are then taken to be sold at nearby peanut buying stations.
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Peanut Grading, Shelling and Blanching
At the shelling company buying station, peanuts are sampled and graded by the Federal-State Inspection Service to determine their value. The inspectors establish the meat content, size of pods, kernel size, moisture content, damaged kernels and foreign material. The results of the inspection determine the overall quality and value of each load.
After the peanuts are purchased by the sheller, they are placed in dry storage for eventual sale to processors and manufacturers. At the shelling plant, peanuts are taken from storage and cleaned; dirt, rocks, bits of vines and other debris are removed. If they are to be sold in their shells, the peanuts may also pass through a machine that cuts off any remaining stems on the shells. (About 10% of the peanut crop is sold as in-shell peanuts – usually the Virginia and Valencia types.) To sort for size, the peanuts travel over sizing screens that permit the smaller pods to fall through.
Peanuts to be shelled are placed in slotted drums containing screens of different sizes. Rotating peanuts rub against each other until the shells are opened and the kernels fall out. The kernels are sized on screens that permit the smaller kernels to fall through. The shelled peanuts are cleaned again to remove foreign materials. This is done with density separators, electronic color sorters and by visual inspection to ensure that only the best peanuts reach the market. The peanut kernels are then sized, graded and bagged for market.
From the sheller, peanuts are cleaned again and “blanched” before they are used in most peanut foods. Blanching is simply the removal of the reddish skin covering the kernels. In whole-nut or split-nut dry blanching, the kernels travel through warm air for a period of time to loosen the skins. Then the kernels go through a blanching machine where large rollers rub the surfaces of the kernels until the skins fall off. These kernels are checked with electronic color sorters to ensure that blanching is complete.
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How Peanuts are Marketed
Peanuts are sold in various ways. A peanut broker or a sheller may sell the peanuts to the end user – or, a peanut dealer or commission merchant in a large market may buy the peanuts. Peanuts are usually sold to a manufacturer or “end user,” who then converts the peanuts to consumer products and markets the peanuts to the public.
Roughly three-quarters of the peanuts grown in the U. S. are used domestically, predominantly as edible products. About one-forth of all U.S. grown peanuts are exported to other countries. Exported peanuts are usually shipped raw, both shelled and in the shell. The major buyers of U. S. peanuts are found in Western Europe, Canada and Japan.
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Peanut Butter/Peanut Spread
About one-half of all edible peanuts produced in the United States are used to make peanut butter and peanut spreads. By law and industry standard, any product labeled “peanut butter” in the U. S. must be at least 90% peanuts. The remaining 10% may be salt, sweetener and an emulsifier (hardened vegetable oil which prevents the peanut oil from separating and rising to the top).
Other similar products which don’t subscribe to the 90%/10% rule are labeled peanut spread. Many are reduced fat products with added vitamins and minerals. These standards are subscribed to by the industry to assure consumers of uniformly nutritious products.
The ancient South American Indians were the first to make and eat peanut butter, and one of the peanut foods invented by Dr. George Washington Carver was similar to peanut butter. Historical reference has it, however, that peanut butter was invented by a physician in St. Louis about 1890 as a health food for the elderly. No one remembers the physician’s name, although records show that in 1903 Ambrose W. Straub of St. Louis patented a machine to make peanut butter. Also during that period (1895), Dr. John Harvey Kellogg (of breakfast cereal fame) patented the process of making peanut butter for the patients at his Battle Creek Sanitarium, a health food retreat in Michigan.
Basically, all peanut butter is made by a similar process. First the shelled, raw peanuts are roasted and cooled, then the skins are removed (blanched.) Some manufacturers split the kernels and remove the heart of the peanut as well. The hearts can be saved to make peanut oil and the skins left over from blanching can be sold for animal feed. The blanched peanut kernels are electronically sorted or hand picked one last time to be sure only good, wholesome kernels are used in peanut butter.
The peanuts are ground, usually through two grinding stages, to produce a smooth, even-textured butter. The peanuts are heated during the grinding to about 170 degrees F . Once the emulsifiers are added and mixed, the butter is cooled rapidly to 120 degrees F or below. This crystallizes the emulsifiers, thus trapping the peanut oil that was released by the grinding. To make chunky peanut butter, peanut granules are added to the creamy peanut butter. The peanut butter is then packed into containers for sale at stores.
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Roasted Peanuts/Snack Peanuts
To be roasted in the shell, peanuts are cooked at medium heat for about 15 minutes. They may be plain roasted peanuts or seasoned roasted-in-the-shell. The most popular are salted in-the-shell, however the new flavors – cajun and jalapeno are getting accolades from consumers as well. To season peanuts in the shell – prior to roasting- the peanuts are washed and then the seasonings, which are dissolved in water, are forced through the shells by a pressure process. When dried during roasting, the seasonings remain inside the shells. Most often, snack peanuts are shelled, roasted, blanched and salted, (although Spanish peanuts are usually roasted with their skins on.) Peanuts may be roasted in oil or by a dry-roasting process. Peanuts are oil-roasted in continuous cookers that take a steady stream of peanuts through hot oil for about five minutes. After draining, the kernels are salted evenly. Dry-roasted peanuts are cooked in a large oven by dry, hot forced air after which spicy seasonings are applied. The roasted peanuts are then packed in containers ranging in size from bags holding a handful, to large cans and jars. Frequently, peanuts are mixed with other nuts and dried fruits for “health-food” snacks.
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Peanuts are used in candy-making in a seemingly infinite number of ways.A large variety of candy bars combine peanuts (whole, chopped or as butter) with such treats as chocolate, nougat, marshmallow, caramel, other nuts and dried fruits. Peanut brittle and chocolatey-covered peanuts are always popular. The high protein content of peanuts make them ideal for high energy snacks. Seven of the top ten candy bars sold in the U.S. contain peanuts and/or peanut butter.
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Oil and Other Peanut Products
Applying pressure to peanuts squeezes out their oil. This oil is excellent for cooking because it is tasteless and can be heated to very high temperatures before it smokes. (450 degrees F, which is hotter than most other cooking oils). With hotter cooking temperatures, food will cook faster and absorb less oil. Peanut oil does not absorb or transfer flavors, so the same oil may be used repeatedly to cook different foods.
Specially processed, defatted peanuts are available as roasted snack peanuts; they may be ground into a flour, which can be used to make such foods as high protein drinks and snacks. Or, the defatted nuts may be granulated and added to breakfast or diet bars to raise their protein level.
Partially defatted peanuts can also be flavored to taste and to look (when chopped) like other nuts, such as pecans, almonds and walnuts for use in cooking.
Peanuts can be made into imitation milk, cheese and ice cream. In fact, “cheese”” made from peanut milk is nutritionally superior to dairy products in everything except calcium.
Peanut meal (made from the by-product of peanuts pressed for oil) is an important high protein animal feed.
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Non-Food Uses for Peanuts
The shells, skins and kernels of peanuts may be used to make a vast variety of non-food products. For example, the shells may be used in wallboard, fireplace logs, fiber roughage for livestock feed and kitty litter; and, the skins may be used for paper making. Peanuts are often used as an ingredient in other products such as detergent, salves, metal polish, bleach, ink, axle grease, shaving cream, face creams, soap, linoleum, rubber, cosmetics, paint, explosives, shampoo, and medicine.
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How You Can Grow A Peanut Plant
- Raw peanuts (may be purchased in the produce section of most grocery stores, at health food stores OR by mail order – see Peanut Marketplace for more information)
- Flower pot or container with drainage hole (6-8 inches in diameter)
- Sandy or sandy loamy soil
- Soak peanuts in water overnight
- Fill pot with soil to one inch below rim
- Plant three peanuts 1 to 1.5 inches deep and cover firmly with soil but do not pack
- Keep soil moist (not wet). Maintain a temperature of 65 degrees F or above (80 degrees F is ideal)
Peanuts should sprout within five to eight days. Continue to keep plant in a warm location exposed to direct sunlight as much as possible. Blooms will likely appear approximately 45 days after the peanut plant has emerged. (Production of peanuts on potted plant is unlikely, but may occur if kept growing for a minimum of three months)
“GROWING PEANUTS IN THE GARDEN”
- Climate for Peanuts
For high yields and superior quality, peanuts require a moderate growing period (110 to 120 days) with a steady, rather high temperature and a moderate, uniformly distributed supply of moisture. The growing season should be long, warm and moist, and the harvest season should be dry.
- Soil for Peanuts
Light colored, well drained, sandy loam soils are ideal for growing peanuts. Since the tap root of the peanut plant frequently penetrates to a depth of 18 inches, it is important that the subsoil be deep and well drained and without tendencies to become excessively dry. Peanuts should not be grown on the same land for successive years (alternate with corn, potatoes, etc.).
Raw peanuts with redskins, intact and unbroken, should be used. Seeds may be left in the outer shell, however, germination will be faster if shelled peanuts are planted. (Raw peanuts may be purchased in produce sections of most grocery stores and from health food stores.) Commercial peanut farmers use seeds treated for disease, but this is not necessary for the home garden.
- Soil Preparation and Fertilization
Soil should be worked until loose and prepared into rows spaced 24 to 36 inches apart. Peanuts respond best to residual fertilization that has been applied to the crop preceding peanuts; however, if the area to be planted has not been fertilized during the prior 12 months, then ahead of planting, apply 10 pounds 0-10-20 fertilizer per 1,000 square feet.
Plant as early as possible in spring after there is no danger of frost. Plant only when the soil is moist and at least 65 E F. at seed depth (2 to 4 inches). Space seeds 4 to 6 inches apart at a depth of about 2 inches. Cover furrow with soil and lightly pack. Plants emerge in 10 to 15 days depending on soil and weather conditions. When plants are about one inch high, thin stand to about 8 inches apart. Control grass and weeds. In cultivating, never throw dirt on the peanut plant.
- Further Fertilization
When blossoms appear on the peanut plants, apply Gypsum in a 14-inch band over the plants (does not burn) at the rate of 15 lbs. per 1,000 square feet. This is essential to the formation of the peanut kernels.
- Growth and Development
As the peanut plant grows and develops, small yellow blossoms appear (are capable of self-pollination). With maturity, these blooms wilt and a stem or peg forms. Gravity pulls the peg downward into the soil where the peanut pod forms. The outer shell reaches full size well before the individual peanuts mature. Each plant produces between 25 and 50 peanuts. Mature plants may be as large as 36 inches in diameter and about 18 inches tall. The peanut plant has a fruiting period of about two months. All pods do not “set” or ripen evenly. The object is to harvest when the greatest number of pods are matured.
When a peanut is ripe, the veins of the hull are prominent and the inside of the hull has turned dark. If the inside of hull is white, the pod is immature. Pull a plant to examine pods for readiness. Dig when about 2/3’s of pods on a plant are mature. If the soil is packed down around the plant, loosen it gently. Shake off as much of the soil as possible (if the earth is damp and sticks to the peanuts, shake again later when it has had time to dry.)
- Drying (or Curing)
Allow plants, with peanuts still attached, to “cure” in full hot sun for 4 to 7 days (may be left, turned peanuts side up on the garden row) or inside a dry, well ventilated area (may be hung or spread in garage basement or storage building). Ventilation is important to the curing process of reducing the initial moisture level of about 50% to a safe storage level of about 10%. Inside curing may take from 2 to 4 weeks. When the curing process is completed, peanuts may be separated from the plant and used or stored.
Peanuts should be stored in a cool, dry place. They keep fresh indefinitely when stored in a tightly closed container in the freezer, ready for use.
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No other vegetable grows like a peanut.
A Peanut’s Life
The peanut seed germinates about two days after planting, when the soil temperature is between 65° and 75° F. A few days later, roots begin to appear and approximately eight days after planting, you’ll see shoots poking through the soil’s surface.
Within 14 days of planting, small leaves unfold, with each leaf consisting of a slender stem and four leaflets. From these four leaflets new shoots begin to emerge.
The lateral branches that develop are the origin of the flowering branches. Be extremely careful not to injure or bury these branches when cultivating.
Forming the Nut
Attractive yellow flowers appear approximately six weeks after planting, and the peanut plant starts to resemble a yellow-flowering sweet pea bush. As the small flowers wither, stalklike pegs appear at their bases. Pulled by gravity the pegs curve downward and penetrate the soil to a depth of one to three inches. As the pods begin to form, they shift to a horizontal position. The pods grow and form the tan fruit that we know as unshelled peanuts.
The plants signal that the pods are maturing by starting to turn yellow. This happens when the food supply is consumed by the peanut kernels instead of by the plant. The plants continue to grow and flower for several weeks, however, until they reach one to 1-1/2 feet tall, and each produces at least 40 mature pods. When the plants turn almost completely yellow, it’s harvesttime. Don’t wait long to harvest because the pods are apt to break off and become lost underground.
Types of Peanuts
Peanuts fall into four basic types: Virginia, Runner, Spanish and Valencia.
The low-growing Virginia and Runner plants, which contain two seeds per pod, tend to spread and produce larger nuts than the Spanish type.
Spanish and Valencia, both bunching plants, are small seeded, with the Spanish having two to three seeds per pod and the Valencia having three to six seeds per pod.
Because northern summers are short and peanuts can’t tolerate frosty nights, northern gardeners should plant the fastest-growing variety, ‘Early Spanish’, to make sure that the peanuts can be harvested before there’s any sign of frost.