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Working for peanuts

Faith, optimism carry peanut farmers through hard times

Jonathan Sanders isn’t yet 30 years old but has a wealth of experience in farming. He and his father farm peanuts and other crops in south Alabama. Photo courtesy of Alabama Farmers Federation.

By Peggy Ussery Hatcher

Farmers are an optimistic bunch.

They have to be, because natural disasters, depressed peanut prices and the threat of trade wars are not for the faint of heart.

“Farmers, you know, we’re very optimistic and that’s what keeps us rolling,” said Joel Sirmon, who farms with his brother and nephew in Baldwin County near Mobile. “You put it in the good Lord’s hands and hope for the best. He humbles you sometimes.”

Alabama is one of the top peanut-producing states in the country with peanut farmers planting around 180,000 acres of peanuts each year, according to the Alabama Peanut Producers website. The popular legume is grown in 37 of the state’s 67 counties, mostly in the southern part of the state (though farmers in some northern counties are also growing peanuts).

In addition to peanuts, Sirmon grows cotton, corn and potatoes. Sirmon’s farm will have 1,400 acres planted for the 2019. He’s hopeful for a good harvest, but he was hopeful last year as well; at 62, Sirmon knows hope will only get you so far because some things are just beyond your control.

“Last year was the weather,” he says. “I had a good crop made but just couldn’t get it harvested. That was very frustrating to have something and you can’t reap the benefits of it.”

When Hurricane Michael came ashore in October last year, it tore through fields in southeast Alabama, northwest Florida and Georgia. The storm’s rain bands saturated fields. In the southeast Alabama counties in the storm’s path, direct agricultural losses were reported at $204 million, according to a damage assessment report from the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Cotton losses were projected at nearly $108 million while peanut losses were projected at more than $11 million.

Above-average rainfall in the weeks and months after the hurricane hurt the 2018 peanut harvest even more throughout Alabama.

Carl Sanders farms peanuts and other crops in Coffee County with his son, Jonathan. Sanders says the 2018 peanut crop was shaping up to be a good one – until Hurricane Michael. Photo courtesy of Alabama Farmers Federation.

Rain is a tricky thing for farmers. Too little and crops dry up. Too much rain, or rain at the wrong times, can be just as damaging. Rain every five to seven days is good while peanuts are growing, but peanuts grow in the soil and have to be dug up. Once farmers finish digging, the peanuts have to dry for a few days before they can be picked. Digging and picking peanuts typically runs from September to November, and too much rain during that time can delay the harvest and ruin the peanuts.

Jonathan Sanders farms with his father, Carl Sanders, the president of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association. Altogether, they farm about 1,000 acres split between corn, cotton and peanuts. With their farm in the very northeastern corner of Coffee County, the Sanderses have fields in Coffee, Dale and Pike counties and are members of South Alabama Electric Cooperative.

“Even if you work diligently all year and make a good crop, you could potentially lose it all like we saw last year with the hurricane,” 27-year-old Jonathan Sanders says. “Many people had a lot of loss and that was just an uncontrollable loss for them.”

They were fortunate, he said, as their losses in 2018 were not as great as some of their fellow farmers farther south and into Georgia. Some of their fields had zero loss while others lost about 20 percent of the harvest. Some farmers lost 100 percent of their crops due to the weather.

“The only thing you can do is worry about the things you can control,” Jonathan Sanders says. “The rest you’ve got to leave up to God.”

Coping with down years

Farmers were already dealing with depressed peanut prices due to a supply surplus on the market that goes back to a bumper crop in 2017, Carl Sanders says. Talks of trade tariffs on foreign imports and the possibility of those countries retaliating with their own tariffs on U.S. products created more uneasiness. But, the 2018 peanut harvest promised to be great for Alabama farmers – until the weather turned against them.

Along with Hurricane Michael’s impact on southeastern counties, farmers faced excessive rains throughout the state.

“We made a good crop, a really good crop – everything looked really good,” Carl Sanders says. “When Hurricane Michael came through, it dumped all that rain on us and then it just continued to rain about every three, four, five days and we just had an awful harvest. If the soil is really saturated, it makes harvest really challenging. Instead of harvesting a bumper crop, we harvested just a sort of average crop or less.”

Across the state, some farmers saw losses of about 1,000 pounds of peanuts per acre, Carl Sanders says. Alabama’s average yield is 3,500 pounds per acre.

Joel Sirmon farms peanuts in Baldwin County, along with cotton, corn and potatoes. He’s hopeful for a good harvest this year but knows well that Mother Nature can make or break a crop. Photos by Colette Boehm.

In good years, it’s not just farmers who benefit. Farmers cope with the down years by operating more efficiently when it comes to labor and equipment. When times are good, farmers buy equipment and invest their money back into their operations and, in turn, their communities. Peanuts, according to the Alabama Peanut Producers Association website, contribute about $211 million to state’s economy.

“Some of these years with low prices, it’s just really hard to survive out here,” Jonathan Sanders says. “If you don’t have an established operation to fall back on you could lose it.”

Outside of prices and weather, peanut farmers also face shrinking acreage available for farming. Even in more rural areas, like where the Sanderses’ fields are located, large tracts of land with the terrain and the sandy soil peanuts love are being lost to development.

In Baldwin County, Sirmon is practically farming in the city, as much of his acreage is near where he lives in Daphne.

“That’s where we live and that’s where we’re going to try to make a living,” Sirmon says.

Farmers like Sirmon and Carl and Jonathan Sanders are optimistic that 2019 will be a good year. If it’s not, they’ll try again next year.

“It’s rewarding to be able to plant something and watch it grow, and we know if we do our part and the good Lord blesses it, then it will all be good,” Carl Sanders says. “You have to have a lot of faith.”