Big debut for the little legume

Published 11:34 pm Monday, October 14, 2013

By Allison T. Williams


The peanut made its silver screen debut Sunday at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts.

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The Western Tidewater Regional Humanities Council gave local farmers and historical society members a sneak peek at the group’s ongoing project — a documentary called the Peanut Project.

The organization is made up of representatives from the Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society, as well as members from similar organizations in Franklin, Zuni, Dendron and Southampton, Surry and Sussex counties.

The 12-minute film clip shown Sunday was a teaser to whet the community’s appetite for the project, said producer Amy Broad of Rock Eagle Productions. The final project, which will be filmed during the next 12 months, will be 60 minutes long and cost an estimated $250,000, she said.

Thus far, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities has awarded grants totaling $13,500 to the Peanut Project documentary, sad Felice Hancock, chairman of the Western Tidewater Regional Humanities Council.

Although some production costs will be absorbed through in-kind donations, Broad and Hancock say they will continue applying for grants and soliciting donations from private companies to offset expenses.

The regional humanities council hopes to air the documentary nationwide on public television, said Hancock.

“This fascinating little nut has contributed so much to our heritage and present economy … as well as the worldwide economy,” said Hancock. “The film is also a way of documenting the region’s agricultural landscape and history.”

Many peanut farmers in southeastern Virginia stopped raising the legumes after the government eliminated its peanut subsidy program in 2002, Hancock said.

Over the summer, Broad and a team of WHRO videographers visited fields and farmers across Western Tidewater. Cameras in tow, the team hiked out into fields several weeks ago as Isle of Wight farmer Rex Alphin pulled peanuts out of the soil.

Next year, the film crew will document the peanut planting process, Hancock said.

In recent months, Broad’s team has also filmed at Suffolk’s Birdsong Peanuts, the country’s oldest peanut-shelling operation, and interviewed Suffolk peanut broker Tommy O’Connor.

During the next few days, Alphin hopes to harvest his 340 acres of peanuts, the largest crop he has ever planted, he said. Although the peanut is the star, the documentary also has a strong backstory about farmers, said Alphin.

“It’s about people (farmers) and their passion for a lifestyle that ties them to the land,” Alphin said. “It’s important to capture this for future generations. There is a certain urgency to this, because it’s a lifestyle that is quickly passing away.”

Before Sunday’s film debut, Joyce Trump, a member of the Suffolk Nansemond Historical Society, recounted the journey of Planters Peanuts founder Amedeo Obici from Italy to Suffolk.

Today, the community continues to reap rewards from Obici’s generosity, said George Birdsong, a spokesman for the Obici Healthcare Foundation. Obici funded the construction of the former Louise Obici Memorial Hospital in the late 1940s, a gift estimated to have been valued at between $10 and $15 million when the facility opened in 1951, said Birdsong.

The Obici Healthcare Foundation formed in 2006, when Sentara Healthcare bought Obici Hospital. With reserves in excess of $100 million, the foundation has awarded grants totaling $23 million to fund nonprofits and health care programs in communities served by Sentara Obici Hospital during the past seven years.