How North Carolina Peanuts Go From Field to Market
Roxobel, North Carolina, population 263, sits in the heart of a region known for having one of the country’s most ideal growing conditions to produce large-seeded Virginia group peanuts. Also known as “cocktail nuts,” these legumes are used for roasted-in-the-shell snacks and as key ingredients in granola bars, nut butters, nut mixes and other consumer packaged goods.
Small Town, Big Business
Roxobel’s most famous peanut-related business is located right on Church Street in the heart of town: Bakers’ Southern Traditions Peanuts. President and owner Danielle Baker appreciates the unique properties of the Virginia/Carolinas-style peanut, which grows so well in this area.
“Our sandy soil is great soil for growing these types of peanuts, and it helps give them such a sweet, nutty flavor,” she says. “The peanuts we grow around here have a much bigger kernel compared to Spanish or runner varieties. Some of them are almost as big as almonds.”
See more: Farm Facts: Peanuts
Baker started the consumer-facing business in 2009, making the natural expansion from peanut farming to selling a finished product. The company’s inventory – which includes raw peanuts, blistered fried peanuts and chocolate-coated peanuts – is sold to grocery stores, gift shops, online and directly from her Roxobel facility’s on-site store.
From Planting to Harvest
While Baker is focused now on food production, she appreciates the unique combination of effort, timing and plain old good luck that’s necessary for a bountiful peanut harvest. The first step is finding the right location to grow the crop, Baker says.
“Peanuts like to grow in well-drained soil, so you can’t have a lot of clay or water ponds. They like to get enough water, but if it sits on the plant, you’ll risk disease.”
The land itself can only be used for peanuts once every three years, because peanuts need to be rotated. Once plants are in the ground, inputs can include phosphorus, potash and land plaster, also known as gypsum, a type of calcium sulfate.
See more: Go Nuts for Peanut Recipes
“Plants will grow until they’re about the size of a dinner plate,” Baker says. “They have green foliage on top, and the peanuts grow in the ground below. They get a yellow bloom and a little stem comes up from that and goes back into the ground. That’s called a peg. Many people think peanuts grow on their roots, but they don’t – they grow off that peg.”
Harvest time, usually in October or November, requires perfect weather and minute-by-minute decision-making.
“First, a machine goes underneath the plant and turns it upside down, so the peanuts are facing up,” Baker explains. Ideally, they’re able to be left in the field that way for two to three days to help them dry. Then a picker goes through and separates the peanuts from the vines.
“We’re always watching the weather at harvest time,” she says. “The plants need to be mature at harvest, but they have to be picked before a frost, and you need a few dry days in a row in the field. Needless to say, there’s a lot of risk in growing peanuts.”
After being cured to dry them further, stock peanuts are sold directly to buying companies, known as shellers, that grade, sort, size and shell them. Every truckload of raw peanuts is tested by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for the mold Aspergillus flavus, which may produce carcinogenic substances called aflatoxins.
The graded peanuts are purchased by food manufacturers, one of which is Bakers’ Southern Traditions Peanuts.
“We always use the super and extra-large grades for our products,” Baker says.
See more: Farm Facts: Peanuts
As challenging as they can be to grow and harvest, peanuts continue to be a popular crop around these parts. What’s more, they’re a naturally sustainable product. According to the National Peanut Board, peanuts are a “zero waste” plant, meaning that no part of the plant goes to waste, from the roots to the hulls. The board notes that peanuts, American’s most popular nut, require less water and have the smallest carbon footprint of any other nut.
“Peanuts are just great,” Baker says. “They’re a heart-healthy food that contains protein, minerals and vitamins. And they’re one of the less expensive nuts out there. Just a handful of nuts or a spoonful of peanut butter can tide you over without a lot of calories.”
– Julie Kendrick