Originally created 09/26/03

Farmers prepare for big peanut gamble



WILLISTON, S.C. - Like a card shark pushing to win a big pot, Tommy Boyleston has doubled his agricultural bet on a single crop his family has grown for three generations.

Mr. Boyleston won't find out whether he's a winner until he starts his fall harvest this weekend, digging in the sandy soil of his Barnwell County fields, shaking out the dimpled, pinch-waisted shells that will tell him whether his gamble is a boom or a bust.

Instead of chips, Mr. Boyleston will be raking in peanuts: 40 acres of runners, the type customarily grown in South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, nicknamed for their ground-hugging vine shoots, and used in peanut butter; and 60 acres of Virginias, bigger, pricier nuts prized for roasting but not usually grown in South Carolina.

"The bottom line is making money," said Mr. Boyleston, 46.

Mr. Boyleston and other growers are dealing with three significant changes to the rules governing their game that have made it both more lucrative but riskier. This is the first full year of federal farming regulations that eliminated restrictions on how many farmers can grow peanuts, making room for more competition.

At the same time, crop loan guarantees have been chopped from about $610 a ton to $355, shrinking the safety net that farmers once enjoyed. There also has been a shift in production from Virginia and North Carolina, where the crop has been grown since Colonial days, to new fields in states not known as peanut powerhouses.

Because of these changes, South Carolina almost doubled its peanut acreage, from 10,000 acres in 2002 to 19,000 this year. Even Georgia, the nation's premier peanut producer, has seen both an increase in acreage - from 505,000 acres in 2002 to 535,000 acres this year.

Hungry buyers are willing to pay growers up to $460 a ton for Virginias, which they no longer can get from Virginia and North Carolina. The soil in these states is heavily laced with fungus such as black rot, which is expensive to combat.

Mr. Boyleston has no guarantee of winning his bet. Warning signals are sounded by Joe Varn, county extension agent for Barnwell and Bamberg counties.

"I just tell them it's been a real good season for peanuts and not to get too fooled by these good yields and get overextended," Mr. Varn said.

Reach Jim Nesbitt at (803) 648-1395 or jim.nesbitt@augustachronicle.com.