July 2009
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Blount Co. Cotton Farmers “Go Nuts”

 

 Pat Whitley (left) and Jim Miller are standing in between the rows of Miller’s Florida 07 peanuts.

Sand Mountain’s Soil Perfect for Growing Peanuts

It’s been said "when the going gets tough, the tough get going," but in the case of Blount County cotton farmers Pat Whitley and Jim Miller the tough get "growing."

With cotton mills shutting down all across the country, farmers are looking for alternative methods to make a dollar and stay ahead while battling the economic crisis wearing on American’s day-to-day living.

This year, instead of planting a thousand acres of cotton on his Snead farm, Whitley has tilled up part of the land for a new crop not usually found in the northern part of the state: peanuts.

Whitley is a third-generation cotton farmer and has made a living for himself and his family by working the fields of his family’s farm since he was 18 years old. Whitley, Blount County’s largest cotton producer, also grows soybeans and corn. In addition to his successful row crop operation, he also operates six poultry houses on the 1,100-acre spread.

Back in the fall, Whitley along with fellow cotton farmer, Jim Miller, set out on a mission to find a way to overcome the depressed cotton market. While at the cotton conference in San Antonio, they began discussing the idea of growing peanuts.

"It’s getting harder to compete in the cotton market, so we were trying to find a crop to help us compensate for it," Whitley said.

After talking with a fellow farmer from Escambia County, Whitley and Miller found a company interested in hauling peanuts from North Alabama. In ’84 and ’85, Miller grew peanuts, but found it was too hard to transport them all the way to South Alabama where the peanut dryers were located.

Miller, like Whitley, has been in the farming business most of his life. He began farming in 1964 and has grown mostly cotton, along with soybeans and corn. He has also grown some wheat throughout the years.

Whitley attended various meetings and conferences, and visited other farms throughout the southern part of the state, and decided peanuts would be best suitable for their farming operation.

"Living on Sand Mountain, we have a fine sandy soil which is perfect for growing peanuts," Whitley said.

Alabama ranks third in peanut production among all 50 states. The majority of peanuts are found growing in sandy soils of South Alabama with the counties of Houston, Baldwin, Henry and Geneva ranking at the top of production. It’s rare to find peanuts growing in a county as far north as Blount, but this growing season, thanks to Whitley and Miller’s ambition to prevail in the failing market, passersby will see peanuts popping up in fields along the roadside in the Snead area.

Whitley is growing peanuts for the first time this year on his farm, which has previously been dominated by rows of cotton, to supplement the farm’ income.

"Growing peanuts will also help to rotate the ground for future crops," Whitley added.

Whitley worked May 20-23 planting 140 acres of the high-yielding Florida 07 peanuts on his farm.

"I decided on growing peanuts because our land is in the high nutrient range, due to previous years of using (poultry) litter for fertilizer," Whitley stated. "Therefore, peanuts do not need any additional fertilizer and this helps reduce the cost of planting."

Miller delegated 110.5 acres for peanuts of his 700 acre farm, where rows of cotton, soybeans and grain stood before.

"The soil and the profit potential are similar to cotton," Miller said. "We are not interested in growing grain because we don’t have an irrigation system to support it."

"Like cotton, peanuts can stand dry weather and produce good yields," Miller added.

Spring is a busy time for the farmers; that’s when planting begins and they begin praying the weather will cooperate long enough for them to get the seeds in the ground.

The summer is spent managing the crops. Whitley and Miller work daily to keep the crops clean of weeds and insects.

Then comes the fall —- a time for harvesting. The peanuts will be harvested approximately 145 days from the time they are planted. So in the early days of September to early November, Whitley and Miller are hoping to yield a prosperous crop of peanuts that will bring in the cash.

"We will find a contract buyer to sell the nuts to," Whitley said. "The peanuts will mainly go for the making of candy."

In February, Whitley and Miller partnered up to buy new the equipment necessary for peanut production.

"We bought an inverter. It digs up, shakes and flips over the nuts so the combine can pick them," Whitley described the machine. "We also had to buy a combine. It is different from other combines."

"They are completely different than a grain combine as far as the internal structure," Miller explained. "It has a similar dump basket like a cotton picker, but it’s not like cotton because you can’t auger peanuts."

"I bought the combine and Pat bought the inverter, we are going to swap out using the equipment," Miller added.

If the peanut operation proves to be successful after the harvest, the two are planning on planting peanuts again next year.

"I don’t know if I will plant more than I did this year," Whitley said. "I always make my farm plans in the winter after I have had time to study the previous year."

Mary-Glenn Smith is an AFC intern.