Farmers are always at the mercy of the weather, but when the going gets tough, they refuse to give up. Just ask Jack Powell of Bertie County Peanuts in Windsor. His family’s century-old farm supply company, Powell & Stokes Inc., and peanut business has been through multiple hurricanes, tropical storms and floods, and has lived to tell the tale.
In October 2016, Tropical Storm Julia dumped 17 inches of water in the main office of Powell & Stokes Inc., the parent company of Bertie County Peanuts, which was started in 1919 by Powell’s grandfather. The peanut division of the business was added in 1992.
“We knew Hurricane Matthew was coming, but we were told it was going to miss us, so we cleaned up and dried everything out,” Powell recalls. “Three weeks later, Hurricane Matthew dumped another 27 inches of water in our office. It was very stressful.”
The biggest concern for Powell was getting all the peanuts out of their warehouse before the water destroyed them – and getting their computers and office equipment 4 feet up off the ground.
“When Matthew hit, we had about six hours to get everything up,” he says. “We just didn’t expect it to come here – it was predicted to miss us. Someone called us and said, ‘Did you know your parking lot is full of water?’ ”
Bertie County Peanuts, famous for the peanuts they cook, season and sell all over the world, buys peanuts in bulk from local farmers. When Matthew hit, Powell says those farmers were scrambling to save their peanuts while he and his office staff of six people scrambled to help. But business kept on humming despite the challenges.
“The water stayed in our office for 24 to 36 hours, but we took our computers up into the attic of our building and operated up there for about three weeks with no A/C or heat while our building was dehumidified and the walls were repaired,” Powell says. “We didn’t miss a lick.”
That kind of resilience and determination is common among farmers, who often have to pull together to overcome natural disasters. Tropical Storm Julia and Hurricane Matthew of 2016 didn’t even compare to Hurricane Floyd in 1999, Powell says.
“We had 38 inches of rain in our office that year,” he recalls. “We had no flood insurance, and we lost everything the water touched or damaged. It was a terrible lick, both financially and emotionally. But we’re back to normal now, and anticipating how to prepare for the next flood – for surely, there will be another one.”
Bertie County Peanuts Celebrates a Century
With all they’ve been through, it may seem surprising that Powell & Stokes has survived for a century. The business will celebrate its 100th year in operation in 2019.
When the company started, it sold fertilizer and seed, and the fertilizer came in 200-pound burlap bags by boat. Powell’s father and uncle came back after serving in World War II and joined the family business. Powell joined in 1964, and his brother, Bill, in 1972. Powell’s sons, Jon and Jeff, joined the business in 2008 and 2015 respectively, bringing a fourth generation to the company.
Bill has since retired, but at 76, Jack says he enjoys what he does and has no plans to retire any time soon. He’s proud of the legacy Bertie County Peanuts has created, bringing positive recognition to one of North Carolina’s poorest counties.
Peanuts Are Popping
How did a farm supply company begin selling cooked peanuts, you might ask?
“About 40 years ago, my dad got a popcorn popper and put some oil in it and started frying peanuts, then adding salt,” Powell says. “When farmers came in, he’d offer them some. People kept saying they were great, so he kept cooking peanuts.”
Today the company cooks 16 pounds of peanuts at a time in oil roasters every fall.
“We have about a dozen seasonal workers who enjoy working for us,” Powell says. “They start cooking and shipping the peanuts the first of November through Christmas. Most of them are retired people just wanting some part-time seasonal work. They enjoy the camaraderie. They have a good time.”
Bertie County Peanuts are sold in several flavors, from seasoned and salted to spicy ghost pepper and sweet chocolate or butterscotch-coated varieties. The company has shipped peanuts to every state and as far away as Japan.
“It really gives our rural county something to be proud of,” Powell says.