The peanut. For a simple food associated with the ease of a quick snack or the unfettered act of spreading peanut butter on a slice of bread for a child, the harvesting of this legume can be quite complex.
Peanuts grow underground, so a farmer can’t walk through the field for a quick look to see if the crop is ready to dig. If you dig too early, you’ll live in the land of “what could have been.” You wait too long and the weather can change suddenly, or temperatures drop. Farmers must make the most precise decision possible if they want to see a high-quality harvest.
Peanut plants are indeterminate in growing, meaning they continue to flower, peg, and produce peanuts over an extended time period as environmental conditions allow. As harvest approaches, each plant has grown about 40 to 50 peanut pods and the range of maturity varies.
“Timing for peanut digging is always a challenge,” said Greg Baltz, an Arkansas peanut farmer in Pocahontas, and member of the National Peanut Board. Baltz finished digging his ninth peanut crop in October of 2019. “Anticipating the unpredictable weather is usually key to the level of our success.”
Glenn Cox, a Georgia peanut farmer from Camilla who has produced peanuts for 45 growing seasons, agrees. “Timing is everything,” he said. “Finding the right sense of timing is critical throughout the growing cycle, from planting to harvesting.”
While peanut researchers continue to investigate more ways to pinpoint the best time to harvest, farmers we talked to prefer the peanut profile board method. Called “shell out and blast,” “pod blasting,” or “scratch test,” peanut growers assess crop maturity by first digging samples from the field.
A pressure washer strips off the cork-like outer layer of the hulls and the color reveals the peanut’s maturity. Immature peanuts have white inner husks, but as peanuts mature, their color darkens to orange, then brown, and finally black. The overall distribution of maturity in a peanut field is shown by placing these power-washed samples on a standard peanut profile chart.
Experience—The Best Teacher
Jared and Lexi Floyd own and operate a farm in Brownfield in West Texas. With its high elevation and extreme weather, “it can be warm and sunny one day and snowing the next,” said Lexi, as the spokesperson for the Floyds. Harvesting peanuts for this family means juggling weather, altitude factors, and harvest times for other crops.
“We’re playing a tricky game right now of figuring out what Mother Nature is going to do. On the plus side, our high elevation with low humidity means we can use our harvesting equipment until two or three in the morning. We’re working long hours to beat the freeze and prioritize which crop we ourselves will harvest versus which crop we need to hire a contractor for,” said Floyd.
Managing the weather and timing the harvest tests any farmer, no matter where the farm is located.
“I recall two challenging years,” said Baltz. “In 2011, our first year for peanuts, we delayed digging on a couple of fields and harvest dragged on until Christmas. In 2016, unrelenting late summer and fall rains narrowed our opportunities for digging peanuts, and many were harvested under less than ideal conditions. We failed to harvest about 20 percent of that crop.”
After harvesting peanuts for more than four decades, Cox said two things remain consistent.
“First, every season is different. A farmer can never go by ‘the way we did it last year.’ Every year has its own set of challenges. The second, expect the unexpected. We usually plant peanuts the first week of May. But this we planted about half, and then we got five inches of rain. We had to delay until the end of May because the ground was too saturated. This has put us off schedule all season.”
Baltz sums up, “My experience has been to build a detailed harvest plan, take advantage of every window the weather provides, adapt, adapt again, gear up for long hours and late nights, wait for sunshine, and adapt again.”
Art or Science?
“The art of peanut harvest comes from having a few years behind you,” said Baltz, “and I recognize farmers that have mastered this art. With that experience comes a confidence in making good decisions and the ability to prosper.”
Cox said, “Peanut harvesting is more of an art because you depend on the people who have been doing it for years to help determine when the wind is right, or the weather is right for harvest. It’s a science when you need the data from a county extension agent to calculate the number of days from planting, the health of the vine or insect damage.”
Peanut harvesting described as a mix of art and science suited these peanut farmers.
“Peanut farming in general is a science because we need good research to continuously improve our crop and to understand solutions for pests or diseases,” said Floyd. “But farming is 100 percent art because there is no step-by-step guidebook to tell you how to harvest. A farmer must be creative and think outside the box to put several ideas together to make things work.”
And for the future?
“There is no operation on the farm more labor, management and equipment intensive than peanut harvest,” said Baltz. “I enjoy where science is taking us and appreciate the knowledge in the industry that truly makes peanut harvest an art. The science of peanut harvest will lead us into the future.” said Baltz.
Pictured above: Glenn Cox, peanut farmer on his farm in Camilla, Ga.