Va. farmer likes new tech

Bob Marks has a lot of irons in the fire. Marks and his brother, Mike, grow about 250 acres of peanuts, 500 acres of cotton, 450 acres of wheat and soybeans, 150 acres of watermelons, 50 acres of cucumbers and 100 acres of corn. They also raise beef cattle, mainly Black Angus and Simmental. Counting cows and calves, they total about 160 head.

Key Points

Virginia grower’s busy schedule keeps him moving.

New peanut variety and new peanut protection chemicals fit his needs.

With prices going up, Marks’ peanut acreage will increase this year.

Around mid-April Marks was getting antsy, knowing he had so much to get done. He needed to work the land in his part of Southampton County, Va., so he could get ready to plant his crops. The weather, however, was not cooperating. Much of Virginia has been as dry as a gnawed-off bone.

Increased peanut acreage

This year, the Marks brothers intend to plant more peanuts than in recent years. Before the peanut quota buyout, they were planting about 300 acres of peanuts.

After the buyout, they dropped that number significantly, due mainly to low prices. Last year, they raised about 150 acres of peanuts, the smallest amount they have ever grown.

The price has improved so in 2012, they will increase their peanut acreage to nearly what they raised before the buyout.

“I feel good that the price is getting where we feel like we can get back to that level,” he says. “It’s definitely improved the last couple of years. And it needed to improve! The way prices were, you had to make an exceptional crop to make any profit.

“Prices needed to improve on peanuts,” he reiterates. “That’s the reason many growers from this area chose to eliminate peanuts from their production. If prices do go lower, you’re going to see farmers getting back out of peanut production instead of getting back in.”

“I would like to see peanuts at a price that would make it profitable for the farmer to grow them,” Marks continues, “and yet keep peanuts where they are not too expensive for the end users.”

Would he like to increase his acreage enough to return to the 300-acre level? “Two-fifty is a good acreage for me with the rotation, because rotation now seems so important with the black root rot problems we’ve had,” Marks says. “A longer rotation really benefits as far as yields. Of course, it helps all diseases.”

For black root rot, or Cylindrocladium black rot (CBR), he used to apply the foliar fungicide Vapam, but has switched to Proline in-furrow, which seems to do a good job for him.

He rotates his peanuts with cotton and corn, predominantly on a four-year cycle. Raising peanuts is a tradition for the Marks family, and Marks says he enjoys harvesting a good crop.“We’ve always grown them [peanuts],” he says. “But it’s time-consuming and more labor-intensive than cotton or most other crops.”

Besides higher peanut prices, one of the main reasons Marks has remained in peanut production is because of the family’s wholesale and retail peanut business, Belmont Peanuts of Southampton Inc. The business is operated by his wife, Patsy, and their business associate, David Peck. They sell peanuts grown by Virginia growers countrywide.

Getting started

Marks usually plants his peanuts between April 25 and May 10, depending on weather conditions. His preparation to plant has changed. “We don’t till the land as much as we used to,” he says. “Preparation now is so different from what it used to be. In the past, we would break the land and then disk it at least two times, possibly three times, to prepare the land before planting. Now, I don’t know of many people who break land with a breaking plow. Many of them now are getting into strip-till or no-till planting. I use minimum till.”

Before planting peanuts, he takes soil samples to determine pH levels. He doesn’t have to fertilize his peanuts as much as his cotton and corn since the needed nutrients are already residing in the soil, for the most part.

In the past, he has planted the Perry variety of peanut, but Marks wanted a variety with more disease tolerance. This year, he will plant the Bailey variety, which was named after the late Jack Bailey, who was a plant pathologist at North Carolina State University. Marks likes this Virginia-type variety because of its high-yielding ability and greater disease tolerance. He says shellers seem to prefer it. According to the Virginia Crop Improvement Association, Bailey is resistant to black root rot, early leaf spot, sclerotinia blight and tomato spotted wilt virus. This peanut variety has a medium seed and produces a high-content fancy pod.

Meeting demand

Besides growing peanuts, the Marks brothers raise about 150 acres of watermelons, but their farming operation isn’t confined to one location. They also harvest about 200 acres of watermelons and cucumbers in South Florida.

In mid-April, Mike was in Florida harvesting melons. “We have a grower in that location that manages our production,” Marks says. “At the end of that growing season, Mike makes his way up the East Coast, working with growers that can supply melons for us. It is important to be able to supply melons throughout the entire growing season from beginning to end, to ensure our ability to supply the larger chain stores throughout the long season.”

The Marks brothers sell melons mostly to chain stores, with one of the main chains being Food Lion.

Marks and his brother started the melon business several years ago. “We figured after the peanut program went under, we needed to try to do something to expand our operation into different areas,” Marks says.

Rewards from irons in the fire

Even though Marks and his brother are busy tending their crops and managing their farm businesses, they know that working hard and keeping those irons in the fire will reward them in the future. They help feed their families and other families across the country. As the interview for this story ended, Marks hopped in his pickup and headed down the main road on his farm. He’s wasting no time. There were crops to plant.

Womack writes from Danville, Va.

This article published in the June, 2012 edition of CAROLINA-VIRGINIA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.