All it took was a chance for South Carolina farmers to prove they could grow peanuts as well – or better – than their peers throughout the southeastern United States.
The opportunity came with a 2002 change in the U.S. Farm Bill that ended the quota system precluding South Carolina farmers from planting peanuts in any significant acreage.
“We seized the moment,” says Edward “Monty” Rast, South Carolina’s 2012 Farmer of the Year and a leader in the state’s peanut industry. “This past year was an extraordinarily good year because peanut prices were high.” Rast planted 1,000 acres of peanuts in 2012 and statewide, peanuts were planted on 105,000 acres, up dramatically from the 10,000 acres planted in 2002. The value of that 2012 crop was estimated at $120 million.
“The Farm Bill opened the opportunity, but what made the real difference is that South Carolina is ideally suited for the peanuts,” says Dr. Jay Chapin, an industry expert retired from Clemson University. He cites the availability of well drained soils, good rotational crops and ample irrigation as key advantages, but says the human component is the state’s most significant edge.
“South Carolina has highly skilled farmers with the management skills necessary to grow peanuts,” Chapin says. “We have good cotton managers and good high-yield corn managers. Peanuts require a lot of management, and peanuts are ideally suited for rotation with those crops.”
Rast says the state’s late entrance into the peanut industry has turned into an advantage.
“We had virgin soil – soil that no peanuts had been grown in for the past 40 years,” he says. “That has made our yields much better.”
Rast says the quality of the crops in South Carolina is exceeding the quality of crops grown in the big peanut states like Georgia, Alabama and Florida. “They have enjoyed the benefits of planting a lot ofpeanuts over a long period of time, but that takes a toll on the soil. Peanut is a rotation crop.”
Chapin agrees. “We have the perfect soils to produce a cosmetically pleasing product – a bright-hulled peanut, which is valued by the in-shell market.”
In-shell peanuts are Virginia-type or ballpark peanuts, which accounts for between 65 percent and 70 percent of the peanuts grown in South Carolina. The rest are runner peanuts, also known as peanut butter peanuts.
“Everything to the south of us and west of us is pretty much runner peanuts,” Chapin says. “Georgia is a huge peanut state and so are Florida and Alabama. They all produce runner type peanuts. North of us, in North Carolina and Virginia, they traditionally grow for the in-shell market. It takes more management to grow the in-shell peanuts and the harvest is a little trickier. Here, we can do both.”
Demand for peanuts fluctuates across the United States, but the growth markets are overseas, Rast says.
“Peanuts are becoming a good value in India, eastern Europe and China and some of the under-developed countries of the world,” he says. “China is becoming a huge market. The population is requiring high protein products and they like peanuts and peanut butter.”
The future of South Carolina’s peanut industry looks good, Chapin says, but he notes that agriculture is a cyclical business. “We’ll see our peanut acreage go up and down according to the contracts and the competitiveness of other crops,” he says. “It’s not different with cotton or corn. Some years they are more competitive than others, but peanuts are an important piece of the overall puzzle.
“I think we’ll be in the peanut business in South Carolina as long as anyone,” Chapin says. “As long as peanuts are competitively grown in the eastern United States, South Carolina has the conditions and grower management to hold our own.”