Georgia is the Goober State for a reason. The peanut is the state’s official crop, and it produces around 3 billion pounds annually. That’s almost half of the peanuts grown in the United States and 30 percent more than Florida or Alabama, its closest competitors.
Despite 750,000 acres planted in peanuts annually and increasing demand for local, value-added agricultural products from food processors, Certified Organic peanut production has been relatively nonexistent in Georgia until the last few years. Historically, organic peanuts have been limited to the dry, sandy soils between Seagraves, Texas, and Portales, New Mexico, where there are fewer fungal diseases and insect pests than in the humid Southeast. Although farmers interested in growing organic peanuts in Georgia face more agronomic challenges than their Southwestern counterparts, the main obstacle to the development of the organic peanut industry has never been agronomic ability.
Instead, because peanuts require extensive processing to go from an underground in-shell “nut” or kernel to a consumer-ready food, the extraordinary size of the existing infrastructure has discouraged the investment in organic peanut production. Peanut buying points, shellers, and food processors in Georgia handle billions of pounds of conventional peanuts each year, and they have been reluctant to certify their facilities without sufficient supply to offset their costs. Producers, logically, have refrained from growing organic peanuts without buyers and processors in place.
In 2017, Georgia Organics received a grant from the USDA Office of Advocacy and Outreach to develop the market for organic peanuts and to support the enterprising farmers who have taken on the risk of growing organic peanuts on a small scale. With these funds the organization was able to test the feasibility of organic peanut production for socially disadvantaged and beginning producers with limited resources, offer technical assistance on organic peanut production through farm field days and multimedia resources, and connect producers, processors, buyers, and other parties within the peanut value chain. The Southeastern African-American Farmers Organic Network (SAAFON) was a key partner in the year-long project, engaging farmers within its membership to trial organic peanuts in their fields and to take part in outreach events. With the assistance of SAAFON, peanut breeders and farm technicians from the University of Georgia, and the USDA Agriculture Research Service, the number of Certified Organic peanut acres in Georgia jumped from a handful in 2017 to almost 100 in 2018.
The positive momentum to build a companion supply chain for organic peanuts in Georgia is undeniable. In 2005, Dr. Mark Boudreau, a researcher with the University of Georgia at the time, estimated that organic peanut acreage in Georgia could easily reach 115,000 acres within 15 years of a Certified Organic sheller coming online. Now, in 2018, despite receiving substantial damage from Hurricane Michael, GFA Peanut Co., a conventional sheller in Cordele, is moving forward with plans to have its facility certified to process and store organic peanuts. And local artisan peanut butter makers, like Georgia Grinders in Chamblee, are committed to supporting the budding industry. Generous support from organizations such as the Turner Foundation help make this continued work possible.
At the moment there are no published market prices for Certified Organic peanuts in Georgia, which restricts producers’ abilities to budget accurately and participate in crop insurance programs. However, on average, organic commodities command double the price of conventional ones, and due to limited supply, that premium is exponential in organic peanuts. Whereas the price of raw unshelled conventional peanuts in Georgia recently has averaged about $400 per ton in Georgia, Certified Organic peanuts in Texas fetch approximately $1640 per ton, according to the 2012 Census of Agriculture. In addition, organic food sales topped $40 billion for the first time in 2016, increasing 8.4 percent over the previous year. The Organic Trade Association reports that the overall food market only grew by 0.6 percent over that same period.
Although Certified Organic peanuts in Georgia presents an opportunity for conventional growers to diversify their operations and for small famers to enter a high-value niche market, production can be frustrating. Weeds are the most formidable limiting factor. Because organic herbicides are largely ineffective, farmers must choose varieties with vigorous germination traits and utilize timely mechanical cultivation to control weeds before they can become established. When everything goes to plan, the vining peanut plants eventually shades out potential competitors. But when excessive spring rains prevent producers from getting into the field, the result in Georgia is an unsightly jungle of pigweed, sicklepod, and morning glory. Fortunately, the peanut is so robust and determined that even the weediest organic peanut fields can produce yields two-thirds that of a conventional system.
Dr. Carroll Johnson, a USDA weed scientist with the Agricultural Research Service in Tifton, has studied organic peanut production alongside plant pathologist Dr. Albert Culbreath and other colleagues from the University of Georgia for over a decade.
He is an enthusiastic proponent of organic peanuts as a high-value crop in the Southeast. Nevertheless, he emphasizes that farmers who want to grow Certified Organic peanuts in the region should be mindful of the two substantial concerns that have historically restrained the development of the organic peanut industry:
- Lack of Certified Organic post-harvest shelling, storage, and processing facilities
- No forward contract pricing for organic peanuts
- Limited availability of Certified Organic seed or seed not treated with fungicides
- Stand establishment (germination and early growth rate)
- Weed control
- Disease control
Explore resources on organic peanut production below.
If you’re interested growing, processing, purchasing, or financially supporting Certified Organic peanuts in Georgia, contact Perri Campis, Farmer Services Coordinator and Organic Commodities Specialist: firstname.lastname@example.org. 404-481-5004.
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