Finding the right varieties to fit their season is a task that has paid off for Oklahoma producers.
⋅ BY AMANDA HUBER ⋅
Rogers and Hammerstein didn’t mention peanuts in their song “Oklahoma!” from the beloved musical and movie of the same name, later to become the official state song. They wrote about barley, carrots and “pertaters,” then “Pasture fer the cattle, spinach and termayters!” But farmers in the Sooner State didn’t let that stop them. Peanuts have been a staple there since the 1930s.
But when the average yield in other states climbed higher with improved varieties, in Oklahoma it languished. Two challenges have hindered the Oklahoma peanut industry: a lack of early contracts and a lack of varieties that fit the timing of their season. The first problem remains a challenge because it is a function of supply and demand. With help from buyers and research partners, Oklahoma producers took the second problem head-on. The result is that average yields have risen dramatically because of new varieties.
Contracts Too Late To Support Peanut Acres
Les Crall, who farms peanuts, grain sorghum, wheat, hay and cattle in Custer, Washita and Kiowa Counties and is past chairman of the National Peanut Board, says the growers who remain in Oklahoma are committed and do a really good job, but to get more acres, “we need contracts,” he says.
“New and improved varieties and continued research from our scientists are giving us the support we need. Everyone in the industry has to work together. But we are very dependent on contracts.”
David Nowlin, the fourth executive director of the Oklahoma Peanut Commission, started his position on April 1, 2023, with the retirement of Ron Sholar. Nowlin says when contracts come out late, as they did this year, growers must make the decision to move on.
“That’s not really anybody’s fault,” Nowlin says. “The shellers had a tough time figuring out what their needs were going to be with extra acres in other states and trying to determine South America’s yields.
“The Spanish contract came out a little early, so that’s the bulk of our acreage. We will probably end up with around 9,500 acres of Spanish and only a couple thousand acres of runners because of the lateness of those contracts. We may have a few more acres of Virginias this year.”
Completing all four peanut types grown in the state, Nowlin says Valencias are grown on the western border of Oklahoma in Beckham County for Hampton Farms.
“We’re probably in the range of 14,000 acres,” he says. “We would love to go back to 17,000 acres or more.”
Varieties Early Enough To Mature Before A Frost
James Cleveland is a farmer-stock manager for Birdsong Peanuts with buying points in Wellington and Memphis, Texas, just across the state line. With a history of peanut buying in Oklahoma dating back to the 1990s, Cleveland was hired the same year as Jeff Carlisle, Birdsong Peanuts’ procurement manager. Cleveland says about seven years ago, Birdsong made a big push in Oklahoma to help producers find varieties that suited their needs.
“Jeff made it a priority that we find a better variety that is more suitable for Oklahoma. That’s when we started working with Dr. Kim Moore and Mark Carden of AgResearch, Inc. Variety pre-selections were made over the winter and then planted in the spring. In the summer, they came out and did evaluations.”
Cleveland says it wasn’t just ACI varieties that they looked at, but it was those varieties that rose to the top.
“It’s been a struggle to find high-oleic peanuts that were short season enough that they would work in Oklahoma without running into the risk of freeze damage,” he says. “There’s a saying here that you pick around in September trying to determine when to start, you harvest in October and you salvage peanuts in November. And there’s a lot of truth to that.
“The primary consideration for varieties is ‘Will that peanut grade 78 on Oct. 15?’ That means the peanuts are finished by that date and ready to pick. That’s been the ACI varieties for us. They have varieties that fit the bill and have been a big part of the increased production.”
New Record Yields And Good Grades
During the 1990s, Oklahoma peanut yields averaged 2,280 pounds per acre. In the succeeding decade (2001-2010), yields improved to almost 3,000 pounds per acre. The 2020 crop, at an average of 4,119 pounds per acre, was a state record but was quickly surpassed in 2021 with an average yield of 4,356 pounds per acre.
Kim Moore, ACI’s president and research director, says “Our main objectives have been to develop early maturing, high oleic runner, Spanish and Virginia market types with regional adaptation.
“We continue to work on early maturity because early frost is always a possibility in West Texas and Oklahoma,” Moore says. “Also, with the ability for growers to dig even two weeks early can potentially reduce water usage, input costs and the general risk of inclement weather.”
Nowlin says, “The big difference is varieties. That’s the big change.”
Lariat, a variety released by U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service peanut breeder, Kelly Chamberlin is also gaining ground.
“Lariat seemed to hold up to the heat well last year and probably opened some eyes,” Nowlin says. “It has yielded well the past two years, and I expect we’ll see a seed increase in Lariat and have more available for 2024.”
Research On All Production Areas Continues
Cleveland says although varieties now are yielding and grading much better than even a few years ago, they continue to try new ones each season.
“We are trying four new cultivars this year, including a nematode-resistant variety. We have good producers who are progressive in their efforts,” he says.
Chamberlin agrees that improved genetics have contributed to the increased yields over time, but other factors such as crop rotation and precision farming methods have also played a major role in yield boosts. “All of these factors work in concert to improve sustainable farming and make the crop more profitable for the producer.”
Chamberlin’s program has focused on releasing cultivars, such as the runner cultivar ‘Lariat,’ that is resistant to fungal diseases, especially Sclerotinia blight.
“‘Lariat’ requires no fungicidal sprays during the growing season to control Sclerotinia blight. It is hard to convince the producer not to spray for control, but our studies have shown that doing so does not result in a yield boost for this cultivar.
“We are constantly trying to improve on the cultivars previously released,” she says. “We have Virginia and runner-breeding lines that have enhanced disease-resistance packages compared to currently grown cultivars that we are considering for release.
“All cultivars released from our breeding program have a high oleic acid content, which improves the shelf life on peanut products and has also been associated with health benefits, both which benefit the consumer,” Chamberlin says.
“Yields have been coming up, and we have a lot of good, experienced growers that have been farming a long time,” Nowlin says. “That makes a difference as well. We’re seeing more and more 5,500 pounds-per-acre yields, and that’s huge for us,”
One thing is certain: in Oklahoma, “where the wind comes sweepin’ down the plain,” farmers are ready to meet whatever challenges come their way. PG