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Peanuts a rising crop for farmers

Gill: State earns voice in industry by Glen Chase | October 9, 2014 at 2:23 a.m.

Greg Gill of Walnut Ridge wrapped up his peanut harvest Sunday.

As a new member of the National Peanut Board, Gill said he hopes Arkansas' designation as a primary peanut producing state will direct more marketing and research resources toward Arkansas for a crop that's gained a foothold in the state over the past few years.

That in turn, should draw more Arkansas farmers to peanuts, he said. This year, about 10,000 acres, mostly in the sandy soils of northeast Arkansas, were planted in peanuts.

In early September, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack named Gill to the Peanut Board, which oversees marketing and promoting peanuts and funds crop research through an assessment levied on all peanut producers. The board has an $8.7 million budget.

This year, Arkansas became the 11th state to be designated a "primary" peanut producer. It had been one of several considered a "minor" producer represented by an at-large member. To be a primary producer, a state's annual peanut production must average at least 10,000 tons. Arkansas produced more than 34,100 tons in 2013, according to Scott Bray, plant industry director for the State Plant Board. Georgia, the largest primary peanut state, produced more than 943,000 tons from 426,000 acres.

In addition to Gill, Greg Baltz of Pocahontas was named the state's alternate member to the Peanut Board.

Gill, who grows peanuts, rice, corn and soybeans on about 9,000 acres, said getting full membership on the national board "will give us a voice in the peanut industry." He said he planted about 1,500 acres in peanuts this year, down from 2,400 in 2013.

"It will help to increase acreage in Arkansas by having someone in board because it will help growers to be more confident," about the crop's future, he said.

He said growers are getting used to peanuts as a crop, which he said requires some specialized equipment, as well as extra tractors and workers at harvest time.

"For a lot of the farmers, myself included, it's not something you jump into as the first new thing that comes along, Gill said.

Travis Faske, an extension plant pathologist with the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture, said Wednesday that prior to the heavy rains that struck earlier this week, about half of the state's peanut acreage had been dug for harvesting.

"If they don't get rained out and they can continue to harvest, I think they'll go pretty swiftly. We got a good start," Faske said.

He said early reports from the state's two peanut buying points, Birdsong Peanuts in Portia, just west of Walnut Ridge, and Clint Williams Co. in Pocahontas, indicate the state's crop quality was looking good.

However, he said a late start attributed to wet spring weather and cool temperatures could take a toll on yields. Early reports from harvested fields indicated that yields were running between 4,200 to 5,000 pounds per acre.

"Peanuts like it hot," Faske said. "We had a moderate summer. We probably had enough growing [time] to have a decent crop." But hotter temperatures for a longer period of time would have made for a better crop, he added.

The federal Farm Service Agency lists 104 peanut growers in Arkansas. Gill and Baltz were nominated for their posts by the Arkansas Peanut Growers Association once the U.S. Department of Agriculture recognized the state as a primary peanut state.

Gill grew peanuts with his father from 1968-1979 and resumed planting the legume four years ago.

Gill said interest in peanuts is growing in Arkansas. He said since growers need to rotate crops, peanuts are good for lighter, sandy soils that are also favorable for cotton or corn.

Low commodity prices for both cotton and corn also make peanuts a welcome alternative, he said, adding that some growers have already expressed interest in switching acreage over to peanuts next year. He said the 2014 Farm Bill also works in favor of peanut growers, offering higher target prices and better loan rates compared to other crops.

Peanuts are going to become a sustainable crop in Arkansas, according to Gill. He said that's evidence by the millions of dollars invested by Birdsong and Clint Williams in 2012 to establish buying points in the state.

"For them to make that kind of commitment to the state tells me that it should be a long term crop for us," Gill said.

Business on 10/09/2014

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