Before diseases, insects or weeds set in, scouts are already in the field. Before peanuts are dried at harvest, they're cleaned. Four- to five-year rotations with cotton are the norm here. Money is spent only when it's justified. When an input is justified, however, there are no corners to be cut.

Such is the philosophy of Robbie Umphlett, the Farm Press Peanut Profitability Award winner from the Virginia-Carolina region for 2005.

Back before peanut farmers took a huge cut in price from the dismantling of the federal program, the Gates, N.C., farmer had already started scouting religiously in order to justify expenses.

To the suggestion that growers have to trim expenses in order to survive, Umphlett replies, “Probably not…because you still have to maintain yield.

“I was in the field scouting 10 years ago,” Umphlett says. “We weren't spending any money that we didn't need to spend.”

Today, Harrell Crop Consultants does the scouting. By the time they make a recommendation, Umphlett has already begun spraying.

While the four to six times sprays during the year may seem about in line with a spray schedule, he points out that the applications are timely because of the scouting.

“By scouting the fields on a regular basis, we're able to see what's going on in the field and make adjustments,” Umphlett says. “It just depends on the situation. Sometimes, we work on a two-week schedule and sometimes on a three-week schedule.”

Rotation critical

It's all about maintaining yield and it begins with rotation.

On a four- to five-year schedule, Umphlett rotates his 375 acres of peanuts with cotton. He says cotton “cleans” the land for the peanuts. He sees similarities between the two complementary crops — both require a lot of management. Both rotational crops are planted on 38-inch rows.

While he doesn't fertilize peanuts directly, Umphlett applies nutrients based on soil tests, plus a certain amount extra, to cotton, the crop previous to peanuts. The peanuts thrive off the residual fertilizer left from the cotton crop. The practice benefits both crops. Last year, Umphlett had exceptional cotton yields of 1,033 pounds of lint per acre. Even in normal years, he averages 800 pounds to 900 pounds of cotton lint per acre.

In peanuts, Umphlett has a five-year average yield of 4,250. About half of his crop is VA 98R; the other half is divided between Perry, Wilson and Gregory varieties.

He also uses Lift, Asset and Early Harvest on new peanut land.

Because most of the crop is marketed as seed through Severn Peanut Co., Umphlett maintains good calcium levels in the soil. He applies 1,250 pounds of land plaster per acre. “Growing peanuts for seed isn't that different from growing peanuts for the market,” he points out. “What you do for seed peanuts you should be doing for your other peanuts anyway. You just have to separate the peanuts you're growing for seed from the others.”

Since the peanut program changed in 2002 and quota was bought out, Umphlett has seen changes in the landscape around his northeastern North Carolina home.

Shifts to south

Peanut acreage shifted out of Virginia and northeastern North Carolina to points south. “I've got a lot of neighbors who didn't plant peanuts this year because of a lack of contracts,” Umphlett says.

In addition to few contracts, prices have declined. Umphlett considers himself “fortunate” because “things have averaged out.” Under the free market, Umphlett has been able to plant larger blocks of land with peanuts. Before, the fields were much smaller.

“If the price continues to go down, I don't know where that will leave me,” he says.

By knowing his cost of production, Umphlett keeps track of where he'll have to draw the line on what it costs to produce peanuts. From a file, he pulls out the numbers from past seasons that guide his decisions. “It all depends on the year,” he notes, but cost of production ranges from $425 to $527 per acre, excluding land and equipment. Weather represents the differences from year to year.

“We don't cut expenses just to be cutting expenses,” he says. “Yield is still the most important thing in peanut production. If you don't have something to sell, you won't have anything to cut.”

While focusing on the important things to bring in yield, Umphlett is quick to also give the details their share of attention.

You'll notice that the peanuts are not planted fence row to fence row or road to ditch. There's a reason for leaving the ground bare leading up to the ditches. “Most years, we suffer from too much water rather than too little water,” Umphlett says, noting the heavier soils near the Great Dismal Swamp. “Anywhere peanuts won't dig good — like near the ditches — we don't plant them.”

Will add cleaner

The areas where peanuts aren't planted will be sown to soybeans. Umphlett also grows about 1,100 acres of soybeans.

When it's time to harvest peanuts, Umphlett uses an Amadas 9000 self-propelled peanut combine that he purchases several years ago. He has plans to add a peanut cleaner to the implement.

Before switching to the self-propelled combine, Umphlett used two pull-type combines, with peanut cleaners attached.

His operation served as on-farm research for Paul Blankenship, retired scientist at the National Peanut Research Lab, several years ago. The cylindrical cleaner removed dirt and foreign material before the peanuts went into the combine.

Umphlett now uses a stationary peanut cleaner, but has plans to outfit the self-propelled combine with a cleaner.

“Using a peanut cleaner saves me about 25 percent to 30 percent on the cost of drying, since I dry my own peanuts,” Umphlett says. “I wouldn't take anything for my cleaners.”

e-mail: cyancy@primediabusiness.com