How Peanuts Are Grown & Harvested in Alabama

published Oct 28, 2014
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(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

Who: Carl Sanders
What: Peanut farmer
Where: Coffee County, Alabama

Carl Sanders is one of 25,000 peanut farmers in the major producing areas of the United States. Coffee County, Alabama, is where generation after generation of his family have turned the soil year after year to harvest the sand-loving legume. It’s also one of the regions within a 100-mile radius of Dothan, Alabama, that produce approximately 75 percent of the nation’s peanuts (this includes peanut-growing areas of Georgia and Florida).

When I was there, on a mild fall day, Carl’s son was making the most of daylight hours and racing an incoming storm system threatening their harvest schedule. Carl stepped down from his own tractor seat to talk numbers and walk me (and my camera) through the process of a peanut harvest firsthand and a taste test of my first-ever, straight from the field raw peanut.

Carl Sanders pulls a mature peanut plan in a field ready for digging. (Image credit: Erika Tracy)

Where Peanuts Are Grown

After the boll weevil destroyed Alabama’s cotton agriculture in the early 1900s, many farmers turned to peanuts as a cash crop. Now 37 of Alabama’s counties from Blount all the way the coast-lined county of Mobile play host to the South’s saving crop.

Peanuts grow in sandy, loamy soils from April to October, depending on the variety, and require 120- to 160 frost free days. At the end of each harvest in November nearby Dothan residents celebrate Peanut Butter Lover’s month and a crop that contributes more than $4 billion to the USA economy each year.

These peanut plants may look dry and dead (Image credit: Erika Tracy)

The 6 Steps of Growing (and Harvest) Peanuts

  1. Planting: From planting to harvesting, peanuts spend 4 to 5 months in the ground beginning as a single seed and maturing into a plant with often more than 50 peanuts. Seeds are planted in April or May when soil temperatures reach 65°t to 70°F.
  2. Pollination: The peanut plant is unusual because it flowers above the ground, but fruits below the ground. The plant can sprout in just 10 days and flowers form about 40 days after planting and pollinate themselves. Flower petals fall off when the peanut ovary forms and penetrates the soil. The peanut plant has a fruiting period of about two months. All pods do not ripen evenly. The object is to harvest when the greatest number of pods are matured. An unrooted plant in the hands of Carl revealed a lot of other conditions to consider under those rows of gorgeous green. The presence of ants is seen as helpful to the plants, but army worms can be a major threat in large numbers.
  3. Digging: Digging is an unusual part of the agriculture process, and nearly unique to peanuts. Digging means severing the tap root and laying each plant upside down to create windrows for the most-important drying process. This kicks off the harvesting process. Peanut producers become keen weather watchers in preparation for digging, awaiting the best conditions when soil is not too wet or too dry.
  4. Drying: Peanuts contain 25 to 50 percent moisture when first dug and must be dried to 10 percent or less so they can be stored. They are usually left in windrows for two or three days to cure, or dry before being combined. During this time, hulls are also naturally bleached from sun exposure.
  5. Picking: Once sufficiently dry, peanuts are “picked” with the use of a combine, placing the peanuts into a hopper on the top of the machine and depositing the vines back in the field.
  6. Grading: A peanut’s next destination is a Peanut Buying Point where peanuts are sorted according to variety, uniformity of size or flavor by regulations set forth from the Agricultural Marketing Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
(Image credit: Erika Tracy)

The Types of Peanuts

Think that a peanut is just a peanut? Think again! Here are some of the most common varieties of peanuts.

Runner Peanuts

Uniform in kernel size (which allows for even roasting), the runner peanut is most commonly used for making peanut butter. It is typically grown in the states of Georgia, Texas, Alabama, Florida, South Carolina and Oklahoma. It accounts for 80 percent of the peanuts grown in the United States.

Virginia Peanuts

The largest of all peanuts, the Virginia peanut is also known as the “ballpark” peanut and is often used in gourmet snacks. Virginia peanuts account for about 15 percent of total U. S. production and are grown mainly in southeastern Virginia, northeastern North Carolina, South Carolina and West Texas. Virginias are a popular peanut used for all-natural peanut butter.

Spanish Peanuts

Known for its red skin, the Spanish peanut has smaller sized kernels and is used predominantly for peanut candy, salted peanuts and peanut butter. Its reputation of having the “nuttiest” flavor when roasted is due to its higher oil content. Spanish peanuts are typically grown in the states of Oklahoma and Texas and account for four percent of U.S. production.

Valencia Peanuts

Having three or more kernels per shell, the Valencia has a sweet flavor and is commonly used for all-natural peanut butter. Also, they are excellent for use as boiled peanuts. Valencia peanuts are grown mainly in New Mexico and account for less than one percent of U.S. production.

(Image credit: Erika Tracy)
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Runner peanuts grown in Coffee County, AL. (Image credit: Erika Tracy)

A Few Facts About Growing Peanuts

  • The average peanut farm is 100 acres.
  • Two peanut farmers have been elected president of the United States—Thomas Jefferson and Jimmy Carter.
  • Boiled peanuts are considered a delicacy in the peanut growing areas of the South. Freshly harvested peanuts are boiled in supersaturated salt water until they are of a soft bean- like texture.
  • Dr. George Washington Carver developed more than 300 uses for peanuts, from recipes to industrial products.

Quick Questions for Carl

1. How many years have you worked as a peanut producer?

All my life. My father and grandfather and as far back as I can remember all grew peanuts, along with corn and cotton in Coffee County.

2. How many acres of peanuts did you plant this year?

We’re at 270 acres this year.

3. How long does it take to harvest one acre?

The conditions are our timekeeper. Prime conditions that let the machines work as they were designed allow us to complete an average of 20 to 25 acres per day.

4. How big of a role does technology play in your farming operations?

We use a GPS to plant and spray precisely.

5. Who purchases your peanuts?

Numerous companies purchase peanuts (including Golden and Birdsong) purchase a percentage of the crop in advance of the harvest. Ours are purchased by Sessions Company, a family-owned and operated peanut shelling and processing company in Enterprise, AL.

6. What is your favorite peanut product?

Peanut butter! I don’t prefer a particular brand, but I do like smooth (creamy) over crunchy.

Thanks, Carl!