This is the third article in our Voices of Peanut Farming series.
What does sustainability mean to you? For some, it is a loaded question with various interpretations. But one definition most farmers will agree on is that sustainability means responsibly farming so that land remains prosperous for future generations. And many peanut farmers will add that peanuts have helped sustain their farmland as well as their livelihood. Hear what these farmers said about peanuts and how they are adopting new technologies to conserve resources and make peanuts even more sustainable.
Peanuts: A Sustainable Investment
Unlike tree nuts, peanuts actually grow underground. They are technically classified as a legume but have similar characteristics as other nuts. But as legumes, peanuts have nitrogen-fixing properties that benefit the soil, which is why they are often planted in rotation with other crops.
Greg Baltz, National Peanut Board member from Pocahontas, Arkansas has been farming for over 35 years. He typically grows rice, soybeans and corn on a regular basis. About five years ago he added peanuts to his farm as a sustainable part of his crop rotation.
“We’re really excited about peanut production,” Baltz said. “It’s new to us… but it is also a crop that fits very well into our rotation on our sandy soils. We see that the legume adds a lot of nutrients back into the soil. It helps the corn crop, which follows it by bringing nitrogen back into the soil, and vice versa. The corn pulls different nutrients out of the soil than peanuts so that we’re able to reduce our fertilizer cost simply by keeping these rotations going.”
Peanuts have been a net positive for Baltz, but he never thought about growing them until he was approached by members of the peanut industry who were searching for irrigated land.
“We started farming peanuts in 2011, and it was pretty exciting,” Baltz said. “When the industry came to us, they were running out of water in west Texas and Oklahoma, and they were looking for new peanut ground…with the right soils that suited the environment correctly. And also we had developed our land for irrigation and that’s what the industry was looking for was irrigated sandy peanut soils. So, we jumped in feet first, I guess, and have been growing peanuts ever since.”
Indeed, peanuts have contributed to Baltz’s farm by allowing him to conserve fertilizer for his other crops. The impetus for growing them, however, came at a time when Southwestern peanut growers were experiencing a long and stymieing drought.
Hear Greg Baltz explain how peanuts benefit his soil in rotation with corn.
Tapping the Well of Research in Water Shortage’s Wake
Peanuts are water-efficient compared to other nuts. And the majority of peanuts produced in the United States rely exclusively on rainwater. In the Southwest, however, the drier climate in the region provides some natural relief against diseases that appear in more humid conditions. So irrigation is required and preferred. But the ongoing drought has put a strain on water resources and has motivated peanut farmers in the region to invest in new research and techniques to sustain their farms.
New Mexico farmer, Jim Chandler, is a third-generation peanut producer in Portales. His family has grown a variety of crops over the years, but peanuts have been a regular part of their farm since 1965. For him, growing peanuts is almost a personal commitment to continuing a crop that helped his farm survive.
“Peanuts…they’re a unique crop,” Chandler said. “Right when we first started farming…we had a big hail storm in the spring, and it totally destroyed all of our cotton and most of our milo, but the peanuts survived it. They’re a tough little critter when they’re small, and that year had it not been for peanuts we could’ve gone under.”
In return for peanuts being a saving grace during his early years of farming, Chandler contributes to research that will help peanut farmers in the region weather natural disasters.
“I’ve been actively involved with the New Mexico Peanut Research Board for 30 years…and we’re continually working on new ways to produce crops with lower inputs,” Chandler said. “One of the big things we’re working on now is a dry tolerant peanut. And we’ve made some significant headway on that. We’ve got peanuts down to about 20% less moisture, less water than our original varieties while still maintaining a good yield so we’re hoping to see that research continue.”
Chandler understands that sustainability means being able to farm in perpetuity. He wants to leave the farm to his children, so investing in conservation research means investing in his future and theirs.
“Sustainability and conservation are kind of hand-in-hand," Chandler said. "To me, sustainability means my family’s going to stay with it. It’s going to be economically feasible, and we’re going to have land that’s capable of supporting us.”
Hear what sustainability means to Jim Chandler.
Most farmers would agree with him. That’s why several farmers in his area are working together to restrict their water use over a ten-year period to help rebuild the local aquifer. That’s also why the peanut industry continues to work together to improve the efficiency of peanut production.
Shared Interest in a Sustainable Future
Marshall Lamb, Ph.D., is the research leader at the National Peanut Research Lab in Dawson, Georgia. He agrees that sustainability means farming responsibly for the sake of future generations.
“Sustainability does have many meanings. And none of them are wrong, but I like the simple interpretation of farming or acting responsibly such that our natural resource base, land, water and air, are better off when you leave them than when you first arrived,” Lamb said.
Though he no longer grows peanuts himself, he grew up on a peanut farm and continues to help his brother farm peanuts every day. Over the years, he has also spent a lot of time studying ways to make peanut production more efficient. He’s working on a multi-year research project that will measure progress being made in the environmental footprint of peanuts.
“We actually have some metrics now that we can measure how we are improving our sustainability,” Lamb said. “But what that effort’s going to allow us to do is when new technology becomes available, we as an entire industry will be able to assess that technology in terms of profitability, productivity, consumer acceptance, but also sustainability, and I think it’s going to help us continue to improve.”
Hear Dr. Marshall Lamb explain how peanut farmers are improving peanut sustainability.
According to Lamb, the peanut industry, and especially farmers, have been quick to adopt new technologies to improve conservation. It’s a collective effort to come together and help make peanuts more sustainable.
“I hope that US peanut farmers fully understand the value of the monetary support that they give to the National Peanut Board and their state producer organizations,” Lamb said . The National Peanut Board, through funding from peanut farmers, has contributed over $35 million in production research aimed at improving efficiencies in peanut farming.
“I mean, if we look at the yields and the production improvement that we have seen in the US peanut industry over the last five years, these are no accidents, but they’re instead a result of the producers investing in themselves,” Lamb said. As he sees it, sustainability means investing in the future.
Listen to the full interview with Greg Baltz.
Listen to the full interview with Jim Chandler.
Listen to the full interview with Dr. Marshall Lamb.