Mickler said that to his knowledge, it's the first time that kind of acreage has ever been devoted to peanuts in Floyd County.
"Peanuts to start with are a profitable crop to grow," McMichen said. He said peanuts are a scavenger that cleanse the soil and are an excellent rotation crop with cotton, which is his main crop. "So planting the peanuts provides an excellent boost for the cotton crop in the next year and we're seeing the benefits to that this year from our previous crop in Alabama," McMichen said.
Eddie McGriff, Alabama Regional Extension Agent for row crops based in Centre, said one of the reasons peanuts have not been in the mix in Northeast Georgia or Northwest Georgia until now was an old U.S. Department of Agriculture quota program that regulated the amount of acreage devoted to peanuts.
"It basically froze out people from growing peanuts," McGriff said.
Any peanuts grown outside of the quota were sold at about half what the quota farmers could get.
One of the things the peanuts do is cleanse the soil of nematodes, one of those little critters that is not good for the cotton.
"You do have to be somewhat selective about the soil you grow them in. We grow them in the sandier soils around the riverbanks and certain places," McMichen said.
The plan is to use the same 250-acre tract in the middle of the 1,375 acre farm to produce peanuts every third year. McMichen said the soil on the rest of the acreage is probably not quite as well suited to peanut production. McMichen also grows wheat, soybeans, cotton and corn on the Morton Bend Farm.
In fact, McMichen's last wheat crop won the high yield award for the state of Georgia during the past year at 127.8 bushels per acre, just seven bushels per acre shy of the state record.
But back to the peanuts.
McGriff explained that the peanuts actually pull nitrogen out of the area and leave an excess of the nutrient in the ground after the peanuts are harvested.
"You get the break from diseases, from nematodes and put nitrogen back in the soil for the cotton plant," McGriff explained.
Good, in large part, because he doesn't have the same kind of disease pressure from year after year after year of planting such as is the case in Southwest Georgia and Southeast Alabama, where over half of all peanuts produced in the United States come from. He said it's about a 100 mile radius from Bainbridge , Georgia or Dothan, Alabama.
McGriff said that since peanuts are a scavenger crop, you don't have to apply fertilizer, reducing the up-front cost.
"New ground is perfect, you make great yields if you haven't planted peanuts there. The diseases aren't there so you can use a minimal fungicide program," McGriff said. The cost associated with the fungicide in Northwest Georgia or Northeast Alabama may be 30-40 percent of what it is in the heart of the peanut belt in South Georgia and Alabama.
McMichen's crop in Alabama last year produced about 5,000 pounds per acre and believes he may have lost close to 1,000 pounds per acre because of trying conditions at harvest time.
"This year we're hoping for around 6,000 pounds per acre, which is very good," said McMichen. Anything less than 4,000 pounds per acre would be considered disappointing, according to McMichen.
The peanuts that McMichen produces are called runner peanuts. They are a Georgia 09B nut, developed by agronomists at the University of Georgia. Virginia peanuts are ones you might buy bagged at the ballpark, Spanish peanuts are red-skinned peanuts and Valencia peanuts are usually store-bought peanuts that are very small.
Runner peanuts are typically used in peanut butter and crushed up in candy bars. His nuts are sent to Blakely to Golden Peanut Co. They typically crush them for the candy and also produce the peanut oil by-product.
Peanuts actually grow under the surface of the soil. About five days prior to harvest, McMichen will go in and invert the peanuts. He flips the peanuts out of the soil so the nuts are exposed to the sun to help them dry. After that process plays out, the crew will go through with a peanut combine to pluck the nuts.
The harvest is expected to begin within a matter of days. It's not a speedy process since the machinery runs through the field at about 1.8 miles per hour.
"It's very labor intensive," McMichen said.
In addition to the relatively inexpensive cost to produce the peanuts locally, McMichen said the Chinese have developed an affinity for peanuts.
"They're very high in protein and the oil is very advantageous to use, so the price for peanuts has been very high and they are in high demand," McMichen said. "The current contracts are in the neighborhood of $450-$500 per ton; they're very attractive to growers."
Are peanuts a good option for other large farms in Floyd County? Floyd County Extension Agent Keith Mickler said yes and no.
"It all depends on what they are set up to do," Mickler said. He explained that the cost of the specialized machinery to dig the peanuts is not cheap. Mickler also said that proximity to market and the cost of transportation versus return on investment is another factor to take into consideration.
"It's the most profitable crop that we have in North Alabama," McGriff said. "It's more profitable than cotton or corn or soybeans, so I think you're going to see more people look at it."