National Peanut Month

Published 8:53 pm Saturday, March 20, 2010

Whether roasted in a shell and enjoyed at the ballpark; ground into a rich, creamy paste and spread on bread; or tossed in a salad or stir-fry for added favor, peanuts are well established in America’s homes for breakfast, lunch, snacks, dinner and dessert. And, for Suffolk, they have played an integral role in the city’s economy.

During National Peanut Month, few cities have more peanut-related things to celebrate this March than Suffolk, whose economic foundation has been built on the shells of the peanut industry.

“The peanut industry founded the economy in Suffolk,” said Kevin Hughes, City of Suffolk director of

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economic development. “Since then, we’ve grown into many different types of industries. It speaks to the fact we do still have a peanut economy that is profitable and thriving.”

It was in 1912 that Amedeo Obici, an Italian immigrant, opened Planters Peanuts in Suffolk and built the company on the cultivation of peanuts in the area. Other companies followed suit, and by 1941, the first year of National Peanut Month, Suffolk had been declared “The Peanut Capital of the World.”

“Peanuts were a cash crop for farmers through southeast Virginia,” said Rex Cotten, Virginia Cooperative Extension agent. “The reason being, we have sandy soil conducive to a good peanut production and a longer growing season. It’s been said that Virginia peanuts have the best flavor of any peanut grown throughout the South.”

One peanut shelling company, Birdsong Peanuts, founded in Courtland in 1914, came to Suffolk in 1939 and still has its headquarters in the city.

“Years ago, peanuts were pretty much everything,” said Mac Birdsong, Birdsong Peanuts senior vice president. “Everything revolved around the peanut industry.”

The industry provided jobs and an economic backbone for the city, bringing in other peanut-related businesses, such as Amadas, which manufactures equipment.

“The industry served to bring in others,” Cotten said. “Amadas Industries produces some of the finest peanut harvesting equipment in the world.”

“It certainly attracted machine shops that came here to work within the peanut shelling operations, because there were so many,” Birdsong said.

For more than half a century, peanuts remained the major crop in Suffolk, until the mid-90s, when farmers began growing cotton, as well.

“They were the cash crop for Suffolk until the mid-90s, when it became both cotton and peanuts,” Cotten said.

“When I came to Birdsong in 1966, there were six or seven shelling operations in the city of Suffolk alone,” Birdsong said. “Today, there is one – us.”

The industry tapered off further in 2002, when the government discontinued price support on peanuts, Cotten said. “Prices fell after that happened. The price wasn’t as attractive as it once was. As a result it tapered off. In addition, prices on other crops — such as soybeans — have improved and put added pressure on peanut acreage.”

“Things have changed dramatically,” Birdsong said. “Peanuts in Virginia have shrunk by 75 percent in the past 8 years. It has dramatically pulled back and is now centered in the southeast and southwest. The price of peanuts just isn’t what it was in 2001. Others have thrown in the towel, but we’re planning on staying put.”

While the peanut industry may not be what it once was to Suffolk, it served as an economic foundation for the city and brought in other industries that have provided a multi-pronged economy for the city.

“It has served as a foundation for the city,” Hughes said. “It’s what our economic engine became as we started out as a city to build ourselves up. Since then, food and beverage producers came in, and that continues to grow.”

It is undeniable the industry isn’t at its peak, as so many remember it, but “peanuts are still a brand for the city,” Hughes said. “The industry has changed, but the history and foundation is still ripe in the city of Suffolk.”