People expect two things in the late fall in the rural America South: the smell of freshly plowed peanuts and cotton fields that resemble snow. Each year, farmers anticipate and prepare for unknowns, such as weather and industry changes; however, responding to a global pandemic was an unforeseen challenge for peanut and cotton farmers this year.
Peanuts and cotton are closely related row crops grown in rotation in Georgia, Alabama, Louisiana, Texas and Mississippi.
“Most everybody has a three-year rotation of two cotton crops followed by a peanut crop,” said Michael Brooks, co-owner of Omega Farm Supply and Cotton Gin and Omega Peanut Company. Brooks is one of the many South Georgia farmers who has had to navigate changes to the agriculture industry during the pandemic not only as a farmer but as a cotton broker and co-owner of a peanut buying point.
“This past year, many farmers tightened up their rotations of just one cotton crop in-between peanuts but only because cotton prices had been looking bleak at that point. Things will be turning around in 2021,” said Brooks.
Low prices due to lack of demand was a common issue for peanut and cotton crops the past few years. Yet while much of the world slowed down because of coronavirus, the pandemic created a high demand for the protein-packed peanut.
“We overproduced peanuts for the last three years and it was starting to catch up with us in the warehouses. We just weren’t able to move the peanuts into the consumer market because the demand wasn’t high enough,” said Brooks.
When the pandemic started, peanut butter was in high demand for its source of protein, affordability and long shelf life. Popularity among peanuts increased but cotton production came to a halt. Textile mills overseas shut down at the start of the pandemic and are just now resuming operations at full capacity. Brooks predicts cotton prices will increase as China looks to restock its cotton inventory.
“China usually reserves 12 to 14 million bales of cotton at a time. They’ve sold off their inventory and are looking to replenish it,” said Brooks.
Cotton prices currently average 78 cents per pound, approximately a 26 percent price increase from the 62 cents per pound cotton sold for in 2019. Jumbo peanuts currently average 50 cents per pound, approximately a 29 percent price increase from 2019. In 2019, peanuts sold for $425 per ton or just over 21 cents per pound.
Farmers want to produce a high-quality crop to meet the higher demand, but warm and humid conditions make producing a quality peanut more difficult. “We are always 10 days from a drought…even after a flood, we need rain,” said Brooks.
The 2019 peanut crop suffered from high levels of aflatoxins, which like any toxin, can cause sickness if consumed. Aflatoxin-producing fungi such as Aspergillus flavus and Aspergillus parasiticus can contaminate peanuts in the field, during harvesting or while peanuts are in storage.
“Last year, 52 percent of peanuts out of storage as they made it to the shelling plant had a level higher than desired for toxin. This year, to my knowledge, I do not know of a peanut in a warehouse in Georgia or Alabama that has an aflatoxin problem,” said Brooks.
Peanuts are tested multiple times for aflatoxins. They are tested for aflatoxins during the initial grading and inspecting process at peanut buying points, before the shelling process and before being turned into peanut butter. One of the biggest challenges of making peanut butter is having peanut butter turn rancid due to higher than acceptable levels of aflatoxin.
The peanut industry faces many challenges from a producer and buying standpoint. The greatest challenge Brooks sees for 2021 is upgrading his peanut buying point that receives, cleans, dries and inspects peanuts to keep up with the farm advancements that have been made for harvesting peanuts.
“All of these buying points that were built in the 1970s were designed for two-row combines. These four-wheel wagons are almost useless in today’s farming environment at harvest time because now we have six-row combines and people are going to semi-trailers and semi dump carts. A grower with a two-row machine could pick eight acres a day in the ’70s and can pick 30 acres per machine per day now,” said Brooks.
Brooks said servicing his customers with the same equipment, same elevators and same number of dryers presents challenges for the smaller buying point locations and deciding what changes can be made.
Despite struggles to keep up with advancements and the pandemic, Brooks is optimistic about the peanut and cotton industry.
“As a general rule of thumb, when industries are doing well inside the cities and when the Dow Jones is up, we are struggling on farms. When the Dow Jones falls, and we are in any kind of a recession, agriculture does well. You have to rebuild the farm before you go forward,” said Brooks.