The winners of the 2002 Peanut Profitability Awards achieved phenomenal yields this past year, and they did it while maintaining cost-efficient farming operations.

“Just look at the yield averages of this year's three winners — 5,850, 4,925 and 5,300 pounds per acre. These are incredible yields, but the growers who achieved them didn't do it at the expense of making a profit,” says Marshall Lamb, economist with the USDA National Peanut Research Laboratory and advisor for the Peanut Profitability Program.

The Farm Press awards, sponsored by BASF, were presented during a breakfast at the Southern Peanut Growers Conference in Panama City, Fla.

This marks the third year of the Peanut Profitability Program.

Honorees for 2002 include Chuck Rowland, Gaines County, Texas, Southwest Region; Jamie Lee, Courtland, Va., Virginia-Carolina Region; and Jeff and Jerry Heard Jr., Newton, Ga., Southeast Region.

“Farmers need to be proud to make a profit,” says Lamb. “And I don't mean proud in the false sense of the word. We need to be thankful for our blessings, but we shouldn't be ashamed if we are making money and working hard for our families. The Peanut Profitability Program recognizes just such efforts.”

The awards program, he says, is based on a producer's entire peanut operation.

“We're not talking about small plots in select fields,” Lamb says. “Rather, we look at the overall management of these growers. This includes yields, costs and marketing management for the entire farm, and all of our winners come from sizable farms.”

The winners, he says, kept in mind the equation that profit is equal to yield times price minus cost. “As complex as it might seem, it all boils down to those three variables. Each of our winners is effectively managing many acres.”

The grower nomination form for the Peanut Profitability Award is very extensive, notes Lamb, and considers both fixed and variable costs.

“We've had nominees in this program who had higher yields than most, but they did not correctly manage their cost structure. We're looking at per-unit costs, and how effectively these farmers manage their cost structures,” he says.

Looking at the production practices of the winners, Lamb says there were three common variables — irrigation, rotation and timing of practices.

“This year's winners managed their costs very well, but they did not skimp on inputs, and they were rewarded in the end.”

The Peanut Profitability Awards honor the innovation and production efforts of peanut growers, says Patrick Bracey of BASF. “We see a couple of trends in each of our winning grower's production practices. They rely upon innovation and recognize the need for making changes, and each of them comes from a strong tradition of peanut production.”

Farm Press, in cooperation with the Southern Peanut Farmers Federation, established the Peanut Profitability Program to recognize and reward growers from each peanut-producing region who have found innovative methods of improving bottom-line profits, says Mike Gonitzke, publisher of the Farm Press publications.

“Our 2002 Peanut Profitability winners are the ultimate survivors,” says Gonitzke. “In the past year, they've faced severe weather problems, uncertain market conditions and a complete overhaul of their crop's government program, all the while maintaining superior production efficiency.”

In addition to the efficiency awards, a second major component of the Farm Press program is education, he adds. “Southeast Farm Press and Southwest Farm Press have accomplished this in the past year by publishing a series of articles focusing on peanut production efficiency,” says Gonitzke. “It is also our hope that farmers throughout the Peanut Belt will learn from the production practices of our winning growers.”

The 2002 Peanut Profitability winners shared some of their efficient production practices during a grower panel session immediately following the awards breakfast.

Chuck Rowland of Seminole, Texas, says his recipe for maintaining high yields includes three main ingredients: rotation, adequate water and proper soil mix.

By far, the most important is rotation, he says. “A three-year schedule is essential. Four years is better.

“I stayed on a four-year system for a long time, but I had to increase peanut acreage the past few years to survive low cotton prices. The shorter interval has not hurt yet.”

A grain crop — wheat or rye — included in the rotation mix helps, he says.

He likes rye in sandy soil because it provides a cover quicker than wheat will.

As for the future, Rowland expects his peanut acreage to remain steady at its current level.

“My operation will stay about the same,” he says. “My rotation is in place. We have a third of cotton, a third of peanuts and a third of wheat or rye and small grains. That's the way we'll stay.”

“Rotation probably is the single most important thing we do to cut costs and maintain high yields,” says Jerry Heard Jr. of Newton, Ga. “We're growing 700 acres of peanuts, 700 acres of cotton and 700 acres of corn.

“That's an ideal rotation for a peanut crop.”

Planting peanuts in twin rows has been a boost both to yields and to the bottom line for the Heard brothers. “The most immediate advantage of planting in twin rows is better yields,” says Jerry.

“In our first year of planting in seven-inch twins, we averaged 4,750 pounds per acre. This past year, we averaged 5,850 pounds per acres. Twin rows also give us better grades and helps us with weed pressure.”

The Heard brothers also plan to maintain their current peanut acreage. “Our operation will stay about the same because of rotation considerations,” says Jerry. “But we must continue to look at our inputs and find ways to grow peanuts cheaper and still maintain quality.

“Quality will be very important in the future of U.S. peanut production.”

Jamie Lee of Courtland, Va., also is a firm believer in the value of crop rotation. On irrigated land, peanuts follow two years of corn. On non-irrigated land, peanuts are on a three-year rotation with corn, wheat and soybeans. He uses a cover crop of wheat, which he turns in the spring.

Following corn with peanuts adds organic matter to the soil.

Lee's future in peanut production is less certain. “Our situation is different from the rest of the Southeast,” says Jimmy Lee, Jamie's father who represented him at the awards breakfast.

“Our production costs are higher, and the new peanut program won't be an advantage to those of us in the Virginia-North Carolina area.

“We've cut back 30 percent on our peanut production. We hope an improved supply and demand picture will help us. We like growing peanuts, and we hope to continue growing peanuts. But we don't intend to go broke just to continue a tradition.”

phollis@primediabusiness.com