In 2010, Kevin Monahan of Waverly, Va., had his worst year ever growing peanuts. In 2011 he had his best peanut-growing year ever. In fact, judging from the state peanut yield contest, Kevin had the best peanut yield in the state in 2011.
Kevin, president of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association, averaged 5,610 pounds of goobers per acre on 124.6 acres in 2011. Not bad.
Compare that to the 1,600 pounds per acre he produced in 2010. He points out he had peanuts in some fields in 2010 that yielded as low as 423 pounds to the acre.
“Our peanuts this year were over 10 times that good,” he says, with a bit of an incredulous chuckle. “The funny thing is, we really didn’t do anything all that differently.”
Of course, when you get down to the details, there were some differences. But the bigger picture points out just how complicated farming can be. Obviously, Kevin Monahan is a great farmer. You have to be a great farmer to put yourself in the position of winning the yield contest when conditions are right for it. On the other hand, as all farmers well know, a producer can do everything right and things can still go wrong.
• The top peanut producer in Virginia in 2011 says timing is a production key.
• On the Monahans’ family farm, members depend on each other to get tasks done.
• Two new varieties played a critical role in upping production in 2011.
One of the keys to producing a top yield, Kevin says, is timeliness. But while a grower’s timeliness can help, the reality is that a farmer can be just as timely as possible and it might not ensure that he will make a good yield. Mother Nature has to be timely, too, responding with good temperatures and rains, just when they are needed.
In 2010, Virginia peanut country had a terrible drought. Nothing a farmer could do about that. But this year, growers had plenty of moisture at the critical junctures. And while Hurricane Irene and weeks of overcast weather in her wake hurt some growers of other crops, peanuts, growing cozily under the ground, were safe.
Kevin gives credit where credit is due. “The good Lord looked out for us this year,” he notes.
Counting the differences
Of course, there were some other big differences between 2010 and 2011. Kevin had some great new peanut varieties in his field in 2012, particularly Bailey and Sugg.
“The Bailey was the best-yielding peanut we had,” he notes, “and the Sugg wasn’t very far behind. Bailey was definitely more disease-resistant, even than the Sugg — and both of them were excellent.” Kevin is enthusiastic about the new varieties, recommending both.
“I had some fields of Bailey near a road,” Kevin says. “People would drive down the road, looking at the fields and talking about them. People just talked all year about how pretty those peanuts were. Those Baileys looked almost like artificial plants, they were so healthy.”
A family operation
Kevin farms with the help of his two sons, Drew, a recent Virginia Tech graduate, and Brad, who will soon graduate VT. Kevin’s older brother, Tim, also helps him.
“He’s good to have here with me on the farm,” Kevin says about his brother. “We actually started the farming business together in 1983. ”Eventually, Tim decided he didn’t like dealing with all the risks that farmers have to contend with, and opted out of the business side of farming.”
The Monahans farm 1,850 acres of farmland, typically including about 340 acres of cotton, 550 acres of corn, 300 acres of wheat and 150 acres of barley, as well as 125 to 150 acres of peanuts.
At one time they farmed about 250 to 300 acres of peanuts, but they cut back beginning with the year the federal quota program went out.
“We never quit raising peanuts per se, as a lot of people did when the quota ended and the industry went to a supply-and-demand situation,” Kevin says. “That first year we went down to about 100 acres. In the past three or four years, we’ve stayed in the range of 125 to 150 acres. This year we will raise close to 165 acres of peanuts.”
Kevin considers diseases to be the biggest challenge peanut growers face in terms of production, particularly sclerotinia blight and CBR, or cylindrocladium black rot. Bailey and Sugg offer good resistance packages. He also uses Vapam fumigant to help control CBR. He follows the leaf-spot advisory put out by Virginia Cooperative Extension, and is timely in applications.
“The other thing we do is we try to keep the peanuts in a rotation for a minimum of four years,” he says. ”The longer we can stretch that rotation out, the more it helps with plant disease.”
If you’re a farmer, decisions will sometimes be technology-based; other times they will be “seat of the pants,” as the saying goes. For example, in the spring Kevin has to make the call on the exact time to plant.
“We go by the calendar somewhat, but a lot of it depends on other factors,” Kevin says. “We normally plant during the first few days of May, but if it is the last few days of April and the ground is warm and in good shape, then I don’t have any problem planting a week or so earlier. Or, if we are thinking about planting one week, but the weather people are forecasting a long, cool wet spell for the next week, I may decide to wait and get through that cold, wet spell.”
He soil-samples to determine fertilization, but doesn’t use any GPS to do so. He generally adds some potash, but with a good rotation peanuts seldom need nitrogen or other basic fertilizer, he says. He does apply micronutrients, such as manganese and boron.
As mentioned, the Monahans strive to be on time with chemical applications. And Kevin pays particular attention to maturity as harvesttime approaches. Harvest is critical. After all, it doesn’t pay to have a tremendous yield under the ground but then not be able to get it out.
At digging time he pays close attention to the weather, not wanting to turn peanuts up on the ground to be exposed to bad weather. He calibrates his digger to make sure his running speed and PTO speed are synchronized. He makes sure he has good sharp points on his digger. “You want to cut the taproot and invert them instead of dragging the peanuts,” Kevin says.
“If you are running your PTO speed too fast for your ground speed, you will strip pods off the vines. Then again, if you are running your PTO speed too slow you’ll almost push the peanuts. You have to get everything working together at a good pace.”
“We like to field-dry the pods as much as possible, in the range of four to five days,” he adds.
“There again, it goes back to the weather factor. If the peanuts are getting close to dry where we feel like we can harvest them, and the weathermen are calling for some rain or some frost, we may go ahead and pick them a day or two sooner. After all, the longer they lay on the ground with Mother Nature drying them, the less propane we have to burn.”
One of the great things about 2011 is that precisely at a time when Kevin had a great yield, the prices went up. The timing was wrong for many growers, but the Monahans had additional pounds to sell just as the prices topped.
“It couldn’t have been any better year than to have a good crop and to have the good prices, too,” Kevin says. “It worked out well.”