National Peanut Festival Signs Peanuts are farmed on approximately 160,000 acres in southern Alabama, mostly along the Gulf Coast from one side of the state to the other, though farmers in northern Alabama are experimenting with the profitable crop. Alabama is one of the top peanut-producing states in the country, harvesting on average approximately 400 million pounds of peanuts annually, which generates more than $200 million per year for the Alabama economy. (Georgia typically grows about half the peanuts in the United States.) In 2019, the top four peanut-producing counties in Alabama were Houston, Baldwin, Henry, and Geneva Counties. During the fall harvest, Dothan, Houston County, the self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World,” hosts the annual National Peanut Festival, which draws around 200,000 visitors to southeastern Alabama over the ten-day event. In addition, Dothan is home to the Alabama Peanut Producers Association, formed in the 1950s to represent Alabama’s peanut growers. Agricultural research performed in Alabama has had a significant influence on both the farming methods and varied uses of the peanut.
The peanut is a plant of the legume, or pea, family, and its seeds form in pods. Peanut plants grow to just over one foot in height and spread about three feet. Peanut plants are self-pollinating, meaning that both male and female flowers appear on the same plant. Once the flowers wilt, the flower stalk grows down into the ground about an inch deep, where its ovary develops into pods containing the nuts, or seeds. Once the seeds mature, they can be harvested. Harvesting is a two-part process. First, a digger with a four-to-six inch horizontal blade is driven down the rows. This loosens the plants from the root while a shaker lifts and inverts it, exposing the pods to sunlight. Once the pods dry out for a few days, a combine or thresher cuts the pods from the vines, places the pods in a hopper on top of the machine, and replaces the vines and stems on the ground, where they serve as moisture-retaining mulch. The harvested pods are then placed in drying containers to cure, reducing their moisture content to around 10 percent.
Peanuts thrive in warm, subtropical climates and in sandy, well-drained chalky soils, both attributes of southern Alabama. Shelled raw peanut, which are the plant’s seeds, are planted after the last spring frost when the soil temperature reaches around 65°F, usually in March or April. Harvesting takes place in September or October, anywhere from 120-160 days after planting. Peanuts are a dual crop, grown for both the nut itself and for peanut hay.
Peanut Plant Flower Four major types of peanuts are grown in the United States: runner, Spanish, Valencia, and Virginia. Runner peanuts, which make up nearly 50 percent of all peanuts grown in the United States, are the primary peanuts grown in Alabama, as well as in Georgia, Florida, Texas, and Oklahoma. Runner peanuts account for 70 percent of the food market in the United States, with more than half of runners used to make peanut butter and the rest going into candy or sold as roasted snack nuts. Spanish peanuts, a smaller, rounder variety with a higher oil content, are grown primarily in Oklahoma and Texas and are used to make candies, peanut butter, and peanut oil and are sold as roasted snack nuts. Valencia peanuts, which are grown mostly in New Mexico, have a bright red skin and feature three to four and sometimes even five nuts per shell. Their sweet flavor makes them ideal for boiled peanuts. Virginia peanuts feature the largest peanut kernels of all the varietals and are most commonly used as snack nuts or roasted in the shell.
Peanuts originated in South America, and African slaves first brought them to the English colonies in the eighteenth century. Until the U.S. Civil War, members of the upper classes shunned the legume, considering it food fit only for slaves and the poor. Peanut consumption was largely relegated to people of the lower classes, who bought them from vendors and consumed them at fairs and circuses and on urban street corners. The entire practice of cracking open the pods, chewing the nuts, and tossing the empty shells on the ground gave the peanut an unrefined air. However, peanut consumption continued to spread, and farmers around the country began to experiment with growing the crop. Peanuts became more widely consumed during the Civil War, when both Union and Confederate soldiers valued them for their nourishing qualities. In addition to raw, roasted, and boiled, they enjoyed the peanut in various other forms including pies or peanut coffee.
Peanut Mill in Eufaula Northern and southern troops alike brought their newfound affinity for peanuts home with them after the war, and the nut’s popularity surged. Culinary experts began to explore its potential as a valuable ingredient in a wide variety of recipes. Medical professionals began endorsing the peanut as a health food, and vegetarians promoted them as a protein-rich meat alternative. Perhaps the most significant contribution to the rise in consumer demand for peanuts took place around this time: the invention of peanut butter. By the end of the nineteenth century, peanuts had shed their stigma as a food for the unrefined and were becoming a staple of the American diet.
Concurrently, cotton farmers faced several problems that made peanuts attractive as an alternative crop. Cotton had dominated antebellum agriculture in Alabama and the rest of the South. Alabamians also grew corn, but sparingly. The crop lien system, under which creditors provided loans only under the condition that farmers grow cotton, made the production of other crops financially impractical. After the Civil War and Reconstruction, farmers reaped diminishing returns from cotton because it depleted nutrients in the soil and was plagued by the ravaging effects of the boll weevil. Seeking an alternative, many farmers turned to the peanut. The rise in the peanut’s popularity was timely. Bolstered by new agricultural crop diversification strategies, the invention of labor-saving equipment that made planting, cultivating, harvesting, shelling, and cleaning peanuts easier and more efficient, and the discovery of its many uses, the peanut became a viable cash crop for southern farmers, who began growing peanuts on a significant scale.
George Washington Carver, of Alabama’s Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) played a significant role in the popularization of the peanut, although there are some questions about the legitimacy of Carver’s many purported innovations in the cultivation, harvesting, and uses of the peanut. Contrary to popular belief, Carver did not invent peanut butter, and there is some debate over who did. John Harvey Kellogg received the first U.S. patent for a “Process of Preparing Nut Meal” in 1895, followed by Ambrose Straub’s patent for a “Peanut Butter Making Machine” in 1903. Many scholars now believe that Carver’s contribution was more as a promoter than an innovator. He encouraged black farmers to begin growing peanuts for their soil enrichment qualities and as part of a system of crop diversification. Carver also spoke before the U.S. Congress about how the peanut could benefit the American economy. The Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives was at the time considering placing a tariff on peanut imports that would aid peanut growers in the United States, and Carver’s presentation persuaded Congress to pass the bill.
Baling Peanut Vines Peanuts make good feed for both pigs and dairy cows. For pigs, a diet of corn alone is too fattening. Adding peanuts to the pig’s diet aids in the development of lean meat and may contribute to the unique taste of Virginia’s Smithfield hams. Peanuts and peanut shells serve as good components of a dairy cow’s diet, and peanut hay can be used to feed grazing cows. Agricultural scientists in Alabama, particularly at Auburn University’s Alabama Agricultural Experiment Station, continue to research improved farming methods and peanut quality and to develop pesticides and fungicides to combat threats to peanut crops. Auburn researchers are currently working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Peanut Research Laboratory at the Wiregrass Research and Extension Center, in Headland in Henry County, on new genetic breeding and seed-pod engineering. The Alabama Peanut Producers Association (APPA), established in 1958 and based in Dothan, assists Alabama peanut farmers with grower education and in promoting the peanut in the market. In addition, the APPA and Auburn University are working to establish a Peanut Research Advisory Committee to assist and fund research on projects ranging from peanut allergies to breeding and crop rotation strategies. Auburn has also joined with the University of Florida and the University of Georgia under a collective known as the Southeastern Peanut Research Initiative, which is funded by the National Peanut Board to also perform peanut research.
Hines, Linda O. “George W. Carver and the Tuskegee Agricultural Experiment Station.” Agricultural History 53 (January 1979): 71-83.
Lanham, Ben T., Jr., J. H. Yeager, and Ben F. Alford. Alabama Agriculture, Its Characteristics and Farming Area. Auburn, Ala.: Agricultural Experiment Station of the Alabama Polytechnic Institute, 1953.
Smith, Andrew F. Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.