Drop in demand, poor prices expected for this year’s peanut crop in Middle Georgia

Middle Georgia farmers say they expect a ripple effect from the immense recall of peanut products in recent weeks: a drop in demand for peanuts and poor prices for this year’s peanut crop.

Pair that with big peanut stocks from last year’s unusually good crop, and the result is that many growers will plant fewer peanuts this year, cooperative extension agents say.

More than 550 people have reportedly been sickened by salmonella traced to the Peanut Corp. of America’s plant in Blakely, and eight deaths have been linked to it.

“Without a doubt it will have an impact on prices, very similar to the tomatoes last year,” said Dooly County farmer Teal Warbingdon. “It’s devastating.”

Warbingdon was referring to a salmonella scare that was first linked with tomatoes before Mexican-grown peppers were identified as the source. Countless tomatoes rotted for lack of buyers.

Armond Morris, who grew about 800 acres of peanuts on his Irwin County farm last year, said of the peanut scare, “I think it’s going to have an impact on peanut farmers in Middle Georgia because of the public concern. If each household doesn’t by a jar of peanut butter for one month, we’ll have an impact.”

Peanut shellers often offer contracts locking in a price for peanuts before farmers plant, helping farmers decide how many acres to devote to the crop. But Warbingdon and others said they know of no contracts offered in Middle Georgia this year, and most farmers don’t expect any before planting.

“This (recall) has affected things far and wide,” said Chuck Ellis, the Dooly County extension agent, said. “At first I thought people were too scared, but as the recall expands, you can kind of understand. It’s just a terrible, unfortunate thing that’s happened to a staple food that many people enjoy.”

The recall of nuts, peanut butter, peanut paste and meal produced at the Blakely processor has expanded over the last few weeks to include more than 1,100 products made since January 2007, ranging from ice cream and trail mix to frozen dinners and dog biscuits.

Warbingdon, who usually plants about a quarter of his Dooly County acreage in peanuts, said he thinks the risk has been overblown by the media.

“I wouldn’t want anyone to get sick,” he said. “But I’ll bet more people got sick off of airplane food last year. ... I’ve not altered my peanut eating habits one bit.”

Warbingdon said news coverage seems to blame the food-processing industry rather than poor government regulation.

Most products recalled have not actually been found to contain salmonella, and Warbingdon called the two-year recall “a knee-jerk reaction.”

The recall has been justified based on federal Food and Drug Administration inspections at the Blakely plant, paired with records of past Georgia inspections, which led regulators to conclude that the plant’s conditions were unsanitary enough to support bacteria growth for an extended period. Inspectors found a leaky roof, mold on walls, roaches and holes large enough for rats to enter.

Morris, who is chairman of the Georgia Peanut Commission, said he thinks the regulations for food processing should be revised and updated at the state and national levels to prevent harm to both consumers and growers.

“I think we had some lax inspections going on,” he said.

Morris noted that state and federal inspectors check every load of peanuts produced by farmers, and he said inspections of processors should be just as strict.

It’s unclear how much the peanut scare is behind farmers’ move away from peanuts, because the carryover peanut crop from last year is so large. Many farmers shift acreage between row crops from year to year in response to market prices.

Morris said there are usually about 300,000 tons of peanuts in the pipeline, but this year there are about 700,000 tons.

Greg Slaughter, a Dodge County extension agent, said he expects peanut acreage in the county to drop from about 6,500 to 4,500 this year, but he attributes that to the carryover rather than the peanut recall.

Farmers have alternatives to planting peanuts. But for some, those options may require extensive retooling or expensive purchases, Ellis said. Many farmers have only a cotton picker and a peanut harvester, not specialized equipment for dealing with other crops.

And Dooly County, for example, has less infrastructure for grain and beans, Ellis said. Those can be hauled to Macon or Valdosta, but that requires trucking contracts and sales arrangements with companies like poultry growers, who use corn for feed, or the Camilla ethanol plant, which uses it to make fuel.

Terrell Hudson said peanuts trumped cotton in casual conversation at the Dooly County cotton growers meeting this week.

“We all have concerns about the health issue and about growing next year,” he said. “We don’t just grow ‘em. We eat ‘em, too.”

The uncertainty is tough when some farmers buy plants and prepare for the crop during February. “Everybody is up in the air, but it is time to make plans,” Hudson said.

Warbingdon tried to take the long view. “This too will pass,” he said. “The question is: How many (farmers) will pass with it?”

The Associated Press contributed to this report. To reach reporter S. Heather Duncan, call 744-4225.