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A New Frontier for Peanuts in Georgia

By Jeff Romig

Sed Rowe’s plot of organic peanuts grows on a non-descript 10-acre stretch of land on State Road 300 near Albany. 

Rowe Farms doesn’t have an address.  

To find it, you need the address for Berachah Fellowship Church, which sits about 100 yards from the dirt drive that leads to this exciting experiment. 

But, it’s unequivocally a destination. 

These unassuming rows are the confluence of three core values of Georgia Organics’ approach to farmer support. Seeded here is our investment in helping farmers build sustainable businesses, our innovative market expansion approach, and our commitment to ensuring that socially disadvantaged and veteran producers in South Georgia develop collective marketing opportunities focused on organic peanuts, whose conventionally-grown sibling is the region’s primary commodity crop. 

Georgia Organics’ commitment to organic peanuts is illustrated by Farmer Services Coordinator Perri Campis who moved to South Georgia this past April to support farmers in person through the fall peanut harvest. 

“This work is the catalyst behind my relocation to South Georgia, to be present and better serve the communities I’m working in,” she said. “It presents the opportunity for bridge building in a heavily conventional part of the state. It’s showing that research and technologies that benefit organic farmers benefit conventional farmers, too. It’s about how, in Georgia, strengthening a local food system also means innovation in the existing food systems. It’s showing up week after week, year after year, and making systemic changes in the long term.”

This aspect of our Farmer Services work provides USDA program information, education on sustainable production practices, and new marketing opportunities to socially disadvantaged and veteran producers in South Georgia. Campis serves as a key resource for these farmers, connecting them with everything from hand tools to advice on controlling weeds. Our team also provides workshops, print and digital resources, instructional videos, and hands-on demonstration to agricultural communities in need.

This work is very personal for Michael Wall, Georgia Organics’ Director of Farmer Services.

“Georgia is number one in the nation at producing peanuts but has not organic peanut industry at all to speak of,” Wall said. “Peanut production occurs in parts of the state where poverty is the most severe and entrenched. Studies show that the economic development that comes with a thriving organic agriculture infrastructure could lift up many southwest Georgians. I’m from southwest Georgia and over four decades I’ve watched that part of the state slide bit by bit toward more economic decay, while the income disparity in our state gets worse.”

Campis has been involved with some sort of organic peanut work since she joined Georgia Organics in a part-time role back in 2014.

“(I threw) myself into learning everything I could about the peanut industry, about the challenges farmers faced in organic production, how the industry in Georgia works, really anything I could to learn,” she said. “I helped plan a field day out at Healthy Hollow Farm where the Hayes’ have been growing peanuts organically for years, and it was the first year that I attended the Georgia Peanut Tour which I have continued to attend ever since.”

This past September, Georgia Organics sponsored the Georgia Peanut Tour, which has been held annually for the past 38 years to bring the latest information on peanuts while giving a first-hand view of industry infrastructure from production and handling to processing and utilization. This year, for the first time, an organic peanut operation was part of the tour thanks to the work of the Georgia Organics Farmer Services team.

But there were stereotypes that needed to be shattered.

“As tour organizers jokingly mentioned, having an organic farm as a stop on the tour, they were expecting a long-haired hippie, probably wearing tie dye, that was growing (peanuts) a little bit here and there,” Campis said. “That is not Al Clark. While it was amazing to show that, in fact, organic farms are legitimate agricultural operations run by farmers in every sense of the word, there were some other ideas that were important to dispel.”

Typically, on the peanut tour, you’ll seeing the cleanest fields, the record yield setting crops, the largest equipment, and acreage as far as the eye can see.

“But an organic field looks different,” Campis said. “It’s going to be smaller and weedier (especially after this year!). The equipment will look different—rather than sprayers, there are cultivators or, in Al Clark’s case, an electric weeder. Just because you see bugs or weeds, that doesn’t mean you don’t have a successful, high yielding crop. It was important to flip the idea of what a successful farm should look like on its head, along with the image of an organic farmer.”

Wall said having organic peanut acreage on the tour could be a gamechanger for organic peanuts.

“There’s such skepticism and cynicism sometimes aimed at organic farmers,” he said. “So it was eye-opening when some of the nation’s top peanut researchers and business owners walk on an organic farm for the very first time. I think that they were able to come pretty close to walking in the shoes of an organic farmer in a substantial way. And that’s how we win skeptics over, one farm experience and one handshake at a time.”

The short-term goals of this project are to enroll African-American and veteran producers in areas of entrenched poverty in relevant and impactful USDA programs and to deliver intensive instruction on USDA Certified Organic production regulations and techniques in order to expand access to new markets. Long-term, this project will increase the viability and operational resilience of socially disadvantaged and veteran producers by connecting them to USDA support, sharing sustainable agricultural practices to conserve natural resources, and developing collective marketing opportunities focused on value-added peanuts, the primary commodity crop of South Georgia. 

So much is possible with organic peanuts in Georgia. The work of this project is simply the first step, but Hurricane Michael certainly dealt it a setback.

“We still don’t know what will be fully harvested, stored, and shelled this year,” Wall said. “We might have organic peanuts stored until this time next year, while the shellers are being rebuilt. I think we need to focus on this year’s harvest; get those sales dollars, get the complete data on all costs and sales, and share that analysis with the growers we’ve been recruiting for future production years.”

Campis is thrilled with the overall progress, and sees big things for the future or organic peanuts.

“From maybe five Certified Organic acres in peanuts in 2017, we have nearly 100 this year,” she said. “There is promise for a stronger market as we finalize efforts with a sheller in their certification process, and continue working on the marketplace development with processors.”

Seeds are a key next step.

“For all organic peanut farmers, a sufficient supply of high quality untreated seed, and continued research into organic seed production, will be key in the coming seasons,” Campis said. “We can continue work with famers to accurately gauge demand and suppliers to ensure this demand is met.”

Campis said economic data is also essential to long-term organic peanut success.

“As we continue to engage processors and potential buyers in marketplace development, having better data around price points and production costs for Georgia will give us better economic data into the potential profit margins for farmers growing organic peanuts,” she said.

A final ingredient is passion, something Campis exudes anytime the conversation turns to organic peanuts.

“I was attracted to the very real challenge and complexity of the industry, and how “cracking the nut” of organic peanuts in Georgia (so to speak) has a very real lasting economic impact,” said Campis, who’s quite to connoisseur of peanut-related puns. “For me personally, it isn’t just a workshop or field day, or a few days on the Peanut Tour, or learning about peanut maturity boards and new promising peanut varieties. It’s something greater than the sum of all of these parts.”

From now through the end of December, we’ll be writing about and spotlighting our farmers and the work of our farmer services team. We hope you keep reading, and to invest in our farmer services efforts please click here to contribute $100, $50, $25 or any amount that’s meaningful to you.

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