There are two ways of producing peanuts, says southwest Georgia's Bob McLendon. “You can produce them as cheaply as possible and yields won't be quite as good as they might be otherwise. But I've always taken the other position,” says McLendon, this year's Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner for the lower Southeast region.
To pay for good labor and good equipment, a farmer has to make good yields, and that's the approach McLendon has taken to peanut production. “We spend quite a bit on our peanuts. Our variable costs run at about $275 per acre, and those are the inputs we purchase to make a crop. Our yields are extremely good,” he says.
McLendon also was the University of Georgia's yield champ this past year in the 700-plus acres category, with a yield of 5,116 pounds per acre on about 1,100 acres.
McLendon began farming in 1974, growing corn and peanuts on an every-other-year rotation. “We started putting in irrigation systems before we started farming, in 1972. My background in banking and finance taught me that the only way to make money in farming was with irrigation,” says the Calhoun County, Ga., farmer.
Because of nematode problems, the University of Georgia recommended in 1979 that he grow cotton for rotational purposes because nematicides were being taken off the market.
“We started growing cotton in 1980, and we still continue to grow corn and peanuts. With the elimination of the boll weevil through the eradication program, our corn continued to decrease while our cotton acres continued to climb. In 1986 or 1987, we ended up with cotton and peanuts on a three-year rotation, with two years of cotton and one year of peanuts.
“This year, because of demand, we've put corn back into our rotation. The preferred rotation for peanuts is peanuts followed by cotton followed by corn, with peanuts being planted behind corn. I'm now on a three-year rotation, and as long as corn prices stay at $3.50 per bushel or better, we'll continue to plant corn. It helps to divide our work. I didn't realize how nice it was to have one-third of your acreage planted in March,” he says.
Corn requires more irrigation, says McLendon, but 100-percent of his cropland is irrigated. “All of our crops are irrigated and have been for 20 to 25 years. All of our irrigation is center pivot, with about half of the water coming from wells and the other half coming from above-ground storage, including ponds and lagoons.
“With irrigation, even when prices are bad, you still have something to sell. And when dry weather — like we've seen this year — results in less than desirable production, you have something to sell at a higher price. We've consistently been able to make crops over the years because of irrigation,” he says.
McLendon says he basically follows the University of Georgia's recommendations for his peanut production program, along with those from the National Peanut Research Lab in Dawson, Ga., and his consultant Jack Royal.
“We were the first in Calhoun County to plant twin-row peanuts, and they improved our yields by 500 to 700 pounds per acre. The other factor that has enabled us to make higher yields is our fungicide program. Dr. Davidson, former director of the peanut lab, came up with a program that we have followed, with some adjustments. We use Abound, which has controlled rhizoctonia and pod rot. These were our biggest problems. With the twin rows and Abound, our yields increased significantly,” says McLendon.
This is his third year for using GPS for planting and harvesting peanuts, and he has been pleased with the results. “We plant the crop and determine the latitude and longitude on which we plant, and then we store that information in a computer. When we come back to plow up peanuts, we put in those same numbers. This allows us to follow the same row, tremendously reducing our harvesting losses.”
McLendon strives to do everything on a timely basis, and having good labor contributes to his success in this area.
“They work at trying to harvest everything we make, and they work as hard for me as if they were working for themselves. I have one employee who has been with me since I started in 1974. The bad news is that out of eight employees, four are on Social Security. They work because they want to work. They enjoy working and I provide a good place for them to work. I'm on Social Security myself, but I don't want to retire. I don't hunt or fish, so all I know how to do is work.”
For weed control on peanuts, he uses traditional herbicides, including Sonalan, Storm, Gramoxone and Cadre.
“We don't put out any fertilizer on peanuts and haven't for many years. Peanuts utilize the fertilizer from past crops. We do use insecticides, including Lorsban. We've tried not using Lorsban because it's so expensive, but we learned that skimping wasn't the way to make high yields. In some years, we don't have to use anything for worms. Last year, we used Steward insecticide where needed.”
McLendon sprays fungicides on a 10-day schedule, starting with Tilt/Bravo and then moving to Bravo. He then makes two applications of Abound before applying Folicur for white mold control.
“We have tomato spotted wilt virus, but we've delayed our planting to the window recommended by the Extension Service, and we don't start planting peanuts now until after May 10. Twenty-five years ago, we were planting on April 10. We've found that twin rows cover the ground more quickly, and it reduces tomato spotted wilt virus, regardless of when we plant.”
Although he has looked at the possibility of strip-tilling peanuts, McLendon says the research hasn't shown a big enough yield difference between strip-till and conventional to justify the changeover. So he continues to break and turn his peanut land while strip-tilling cotton and corn.
He uses the IrrigatorPro expert computer system from the National Peanut Lab to help determine when to irrigate. “We put the data in the computer twice a week, and we irrigate whenever it says to irrigate.”
McLendon says his county Extension agent, Paul Wigley, uses the hull-scrape method to help him determine the optimum time for harvesting.
“I use a lot of people in my farming operation. I've never done anything right the first time by myself. I've always followed what other people have done, and I try to improve on it,” he says.
McLendon's entire peanut acreage is planted in the Georgia Green variety. “The variety has been awfully good to me. I'll keep using it until we have one that's a proven producer that performs better than Georgia Green.”
His peanut acres have continued to fluctuate over the years mainly because of purchasing land and rotation needs. “I started in 1973 with about 600 acres of all crops. Through the years, we've added land, and we're now at about 4,500 acres of row crops. But I rent out a good portion of that to other producers.”
Dry weather during the early part of the 2007 season has been a concern for McLendon and other area farmers.
“We've had to irrigate corn quite a bit, and we irrigated cotton up to a stand — we've always done that. It took two irrigations this year to get peanuts up to a stand. In April, we paid about $14 per acre just for fuel to irrigate. This will be a very expensive crop, and it's as dry as I can remember for this time of the year.”
Peanuts, say McLendon, remain his most profitable crop. “Our peanut yields this past year resulted in us grossing more than $1,000 per acre. Nothing comes close to that. Fertilizer prices have increased so much that it has taken a great deal of the profitability out of corn.”
A past president and former chairman of the board of the National Cotton Council, McLendon says the most satisfying thing he has done in agriculture was to give the testimony for the 2002 farm bill, recommending the direct and counter-cyclical payments for cotton.
“We were the first to testify, and the farm bill we got — including the peanut program — was recommended by the National Cotton Council.”
Looking ahead to the new farm bill, he believes cotton and rice won't fare as well as in the current legislation. “Because of high commodity prices, we have less money to write a farm bill than we had in 2001. I don't expect we'll have farm programs as good as the ones we now have.
“In the history of farm bills, a good bill usually is followed by one that is not as good. Freedom to Farm just about put us out of business, but then we got a good program in 2002.
The peanut program, says McLendon, has generally been good for the industry. “The program put us in the possibility of a world market. But the USDA's determination of peanut redemption prices has been higher than the world price of peanuts. We tried to craft the program like the one we have for cotton. But with cotton, we have a known formula for determining the adjusted world price, and we need the same for peanuts. We need a world price that will allow us to be competitive.
McLendon and his wife Barbara have four daughters and seven grandchildren.