The Science of Growing Peanuts
Farmers and Consumers Market Bulletin
By Amy Carter, firstname.lastname@example.org
Life offers few guarantees outside of death and taxes, but peanut growers throughout the Southeast get a fair measure of assurance that the seeds they sow will sprout and grow as expected. Months before farmers start cultivating peanuts in late April, the Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Tifton Lab begins testing samples of the varieties that seed companies will offer for sale to farmers in the upcoming season. During the first six months of 2018, the lab received 10,631 peanut samples. Each sample is evaluated with a 200-seed germination test.
Dedria “DeeDee” Smith, seed lab director, said the lab hires 16 temporary workers – including college interns – to assist in processing seed samples during peanut season. Georgia grows nearly half of the nation’s total peanut crop, and peanuts represent about half of all seed samples processed by the Tifton lab annually. Other peanut-growing states – including Alabama, Florida and Texas – send their samples to Georgia for testing, as well. The seeds are arranged in lots of 25 on a chemical-free paper towel substrate, and stored for seven days in a simulation of optimal field conditions designed to give an indication of vigor and germination. Seeds are evaluated not only for emergence but for development of appropriate structures such as roots and shoots, as well as obvious defects.
“If you’re paying 82, 83, 84, 85 cents a pound for peanuts, you want to plant as few seeds per acre as you can to get a high yield, so you want to know what your germination rate will be,” said Terry Hollifield, executive director of the Georgia Crop Improvement Association in Athens. A germination rate above 75 percent – that is, 75 out of every 100 seeds sprouting as expected – is required for certification by the association. This year’s samples showed an average germination of 88 percent, according to Smith at the Tifton Lab. “When a farmer sees our certified blue tag, he knows the seed has been produced through a program that is going to assure him of receiving a quality product,” Hollifield said. The Tifton Seed Lab’s germination tests are just one step in the process of delivering quality seed to Georgia farmers. The crop improvement association also conducts field inspections to verify the variety and purity of seed lots. Last year the association field-inspected 166,000 acres of crops; 140,000 acres were peanuts, Hollifield said.
Mark Israel’s Sumter County farm was among the latter. Israel is a third-generation grower of seed peanuts. His grandfather started growing peanuts at the invitation of Tom Huston, founder of the company that would become Tom’s Foods. “We have a handwritten letter from Tom Huston asking my grandfather to grow peanuts for him so he could use them in his candies,” Israel said. Israel’s father long ago transitioned to growing peanuts for seed. The crop Israel is tending now represents the 73rd for his father, Harold Israel, who is 92. “This was going on on this farm before I was born,” Israel said. “Every peanut I’ve ever grown was a seed peanut.”
Israel and his family work closely with Ralph Johnson and Justin Tanner at the Georgia Seed Development Commission to take breeder seed and increase it for commercial sale. He works 1,400 acres of a much larger family farm. About 350 acres of that is in peanuts. Israel said his annual harvest comes in between 5,000 and 6,500 pounds – and occasionally as much as 7,000 pounds – of peanuts per acre. “Whatever the currently popular variety is and what they think will be the new ‘next thing’ is what we increase for them,” he said. He maintains strict quality controls on the farm to keep different varieties pure, thus meeting the Georgia Crop Improvement Association’s certification rules that ensure farmers are getting the promised variety that will germinate as expected. “If there wasn’t a system to segregate one peanut from another, then when somebody bought a sack of peanut seed there may be three different varieties with three different maturity dates on it,” Israel said. “I’m growing two varieties for the foundation peanut center and there’s probably 10 days of maturity difference in them. Some are a lot longer than that.”
Georgia Seed Development was established by the Georgia General Assembly in 1959 to receive breeder seed of various crops developed by the University of Georgia, produce foundation seed for producers to plant, and to promote those crops statewide.