BROWNFIELD - While there is a lot of buzz about the anticipated record cotton crop in the South Plains this season, those in the peanut industry also said the 2010 peanut crop shows promise.

James Martin, a peanut and cotton producer in Terry County, said the peanut price is high enough to help offset possible yield shortages caused by the storms in early July and late October.

"Peanuts got a little better price this year than we had been getting, and it looks like we're getting good yields this year," he said.

Like cotton, most of the peanuts are contracted before producers even begin planting in the spring so they have a general idea of what price they will get after harvest.

Max Grice, general manager and vice president of Birdsong Peanuts, said the prices last year ranged from $500 to $575 per ton and he expects higher prices for the 2011 crop because of the strong competition with cotton, which also has high prices.

One of Martin's fields produced about 6,000 pounds of Virginia peanuts, he said, which was more than the field's average of 5,200 pounds. Martin grows Virginia and Runner peanuts: Virginia peanuts are sold as ballpark snacks and Runner peanuts are used in peanut butter.

Last year, the total Texas production of the legume was 5.07 million pounds, and the 2010 crop is expected to reach 5.36 million pounds, according to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The record Texas peanut crop was 9.75 million pounds in 2005; this year will be the second-lowest yield in the past 10 years.

"I don't anticipate seeing the acreage that we had in 2005 maybe ever again, and the primary factor is the competition with other commodities and also the irrigation, the wells and the water situation," Grice said. "I'd like to think that we can get back to that 2005 production, but I think it's somewhat unrealistic."

A digger machine pulls up peanut plants up to eight rows at a time and turns them upside down with peanuts facing up.

The plants will remain that way until the upturned peanuts' moisture level drops to at least 10 percent, which did not take very long this season, Martin said.

Once the plants have dried out, a combine snatches them up with thin spikes and separates the nuts from the vines. The plants pass through threshing mechanisms that remove the vines and other trash without cracking the peanut hulls. At the end, the peanuts drop out of a conveyor belt arm into a peanut buggy that drives alongside the combine. The peanut buggy empties its basket into a large trailer, and semi trucks transport the harvested peanuts to a warehouse or shelling facility.

The vine trash is tossed back onto the ground, which fertilizes the soil for the next season, Martin said.

There will always be some digger loss or peanuts that become detached from the vine because of the digger, as well as, pops - empty peanut hulls - and pods with immature peanuts.

Once Martin's peanuts are harvested, they go to Birdsong Peanuts in South Brownfield to be graded, stored, processed and packaged for buyers.

As trucks pull large trailers into Birdsong Peanuts, sample pullers mechanically probe the peanuts 15 to 20 times to mix up the nuts and collect a sample. That sample is poured into a divider three times to evenly distribute the nuts and obtain a 1,500 to 2,000-gram grading sample.

The sample first goes into the foreign material machine, which separates sticks, rocks, dirt and loose shell kernels - whole kernels without the hull - from the peanuts. The pre-sizer machine separates the peanuts by three sizes; then, the sheller removes the hulls; the shaker sifts the good peanuts from the immature and damaged ones; and the moisture machine checks the peanuts' moisture level.

In between these steps, an inspector aide or inspector will manually check the sample, separate out items the machine may have missed and weigh each of the items - trash, kernels, split kernels, immature peanuts and damaged peanuts - separately.

The combined weight of a clean sample should add up to 1,000 grams plus or minus eight percent after the first cleaning stage, said Michael Tijerina, a peanut inspector; otherwise, the process must start over.

Eighty percent of the sample is cleaned by machine and 20 percent is cleaned manually by a 16-person team, and on average, it takes about 45 to 50 minutes to go through the grading process, he said.

The samples are graded by farm and the information is stored electronically. The graded samples are thrown out while the remaining peanuts are stored in warehouses.

"I always look at (the grades) so I can call the harvester, and if there's problems they can adjust them in the field," said Jimmy Shaver, farm stock manager. "I work for Birdsong, but I also work for the grower. I want to help the grower make all the money he can, but in a sense I want to make sure that grade's right so it doesn't cost Birdsong."

Birdsong Peanuts operates about 11 months out of the year, so by the time it has low stocks, next season's crop of Runner, Spanish and Virginia peanuts are already coming in.

Even though the good peanuts are sifted out from the damaged ones, every part of the peanut is used, including the hulls, Shaver said.

Once the hulls are removed, they are transported outside the shelling facility through a long pipe to a machine that presses the hulls into livestock feed pellets.

Segregation 1 contains edible nuts with less than 2.49 percent damage, segregation 2 nuts have more than 2.49 percent damage and segregation 3 nuts have Aspergillus mold. Segregation 2 and 3 nuts are crushed for oil stock and livestock feed; they are not used for human consumption.

Agricultural Corn Harvester

Because Birdsong Peanuts packages and sends peanuts to large corporations such as Mars, Hershey and Planters Nuts, he is very cautious about selling them only the best product, Grice said.

"It's just necessary to be able to ensure that manufacturer that you're going to be putting out the highest quality and the safest (peanuts) for human consumption," he said. "I think our industry has done a really good job on that."

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