Virginia peanut acreage shrinks

Published 9:58 pm Monday, April 18, 2011

Tommy Rountree prepares a cotton field off Old Myrtle Road for planting Monday. Rountree says he’ll plant more peanuts this year than last year, despite the fact that many farmers are decreasing their peanut acreage.

Tommy Rountree drove a red tractor up and down the rows of a field off Old Myrtle Road on Monday.

He was tilling the ground in preparation for planting cotton on that particular patch of land. But unlike many farmers across the state, he’s planting more peanuts than he did last year.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time I made the decision,” said Rountree, who grows peanuts, cotton and corn on about 800 total acres. “Peanuts are a good rotation crop for the cotton.”

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Rountree increased his peanut acreage by 25 percent this year, but he’s the exception to the rule. Suffolk’s signature crop is decreasing in popularity this season thanks to another Southern staple — cotton.

“That’s what is driving this,” Del Cotton, director of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association, said of sky-high cotton prices. “I hate to see us decline in peanut acres, but at least they do have a good alternative.”

Spring estimates from the National Agricultural Statistics Service show that peanut plantings in Virginia will decrease to only 14,000 acres this year, down 4,000 from last year.

The estimates are based on a telephone survey of selected farmers, so the exact number of acres won’t be known until peanuts are planted in the next few weeks. But the preliminary numbers are usually pretty accurate, Cotton said.

“It’s not the gospel by any means,” he said. “It’s just a matter of what you’re going to plant that you feel like is going to bring you the best return.”

Over the winter, the price cotton would fetch on the worldwide market was driven to record highs by worldwide production problems and heavy demand for American cotton.

According to the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation, demand also has an effect on the drop in peanut acreage. Demand for candy and snack peanuts, which usually are Virginia peanuts, has dropped during the past five years. But less expensive peanuts from other parts of the Southeast are processed into peanut butter, for which the demand has increased 22 percent in the last five years.

All types of crops suffered in Suffolk last year thanks to a shortage of rain, Cotton said.

“Many crops don’t need but so much rain, but they need it at the right times,” Cotton said. “Peanuts don’t need a lot, but they need it at the right time.”

Farmers like Rountree will be hoping for the best when they put the peanuts in the ground. One thing Rountree says helped him decide is a new method of drying the peanuts called van drying, where the peanuts are placed in tractor-trailers right on the field.

“It’s a much more efficient way of drying,” Rountree said. “That weighed heavily in my decision to raise more peanuts.”

That’s good news to Cotton.

“I’m hoping that peanuts in the long run are going to hold their own,” Cotton said.