Worth Working for Peanuts: Researchers crack open a potential new cash crop for Tennessee farmers

The University of Tennessee’s Institute of Agriculture is exploring the viability of peanut farming in Tennessee, a crop more common to its southern neighbors.

In the picturesque fields of West Tennessee, a humble crop is making a quiet entrance in the Agriculture and Commerce State that could spell big changes for agriculture. It involves an experimental crop venture that researchers say is far from “nutty.” In fact, it may hold the key to significant agricultural growth potential for producers there.

Peanuts, the beloved snack and essential ingredient in peanut butter, are finding their way into Tennessee’s soil, thanks to the efforts of researchers at the University of Tennessee Extension’s Institute of Agriculture (UTIA).

This experimental venture aims to introduce peanuts as a viable cash crop for local farmers, potentially diversifying their agricultural options. While they may not be working for peanuts, these researchers are certainly working with them.

Crop specialists at the UT AgResearch Center in Jackson, Tennessee are diligently nurturing a variety of peanut types in their experimental fields. The process involves pulling the peanut plants out of the ground to reveal the nut, which is actually the fruit buried below the surface.

“Your biggest acreage of peanuts are runners, and so, that’s what we’ve got mostly in this field, and the runners go to peanut butter and peanut oils for cooking oils,” explained UTIA researcher Ryan Blair. “But we also have in this field, Valencias. We’ve also got Virginias—and those peanuts are more of your roasting peanuts and your ballpark peanut; those bigger, gourmet peanuts in the shell.”

Tennessee’s neighbors, particularly those to the South, have a strong presence in peanut production. Georgia, in particular, stands out as a major peanut producer, surpassing all other states combined. Experts argue that the similarities in growing conditions make peanuts a logical choice for Tennessee farmers.

Haywood County producer Dale Springfield is among those taking a crack at growing peanuts, dedicating 70 acres to the legumes for the first time this season.

“I was at a meeting in Starkville and talking to other producers down there that was having good luck with it and started looking into it,” Springfield said. “The more I looked, the more I got interested in it. Thought it would be worth trying.”

One critical factor in peanut production is the choice of land. Many crop growers across Tennessee practice no-till agriculture, where crops grow on the residue of previous fields. However, growing peanuts require tilled soil, so flatter land like that found in the western par of the state is preferred since it helps prevent soil erosion.

“These soils are highly erodible,” explained another UT researcher, Tyson Raper, underscores this point. “A crop like peanuts is going to be difficult to manage if we try to run it across a rolling landscape. This needs to be properly placed on a low-lying area.”

Despite the challenges, experts like Tyson Raper believe that Tennessee has ample acreage suitable for peanut cultivation. As the peanuts in these fields mature, a mid-to-late October harvest date looms on the horizon, bringing with it growing research that suggests peanuts could become a substantial part of Tennessee’s agricultural future.

The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that America produced over five billion pounds of peanuts last year, with Georgia contributing to approximately half of that total. Tennessee may soon join the ranks of peanut-producing states, adding a new chapter to its agricultural history.

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