Peanut farming in north Okaloosa County

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BAKER — Jennifer Bearden hopped out of her work truck, walked over to the edge of a massive field of raw goodness and inhaled.

“I wish everyone could smell that,” she said early Friday morning. “That is the smell of peanuts!”

Bearden, who grew up by Laurel Hill, has worked for the Okaloosa County Extension Office since 2001. Since 2012 she has served as the agriculture agent for the office, which is part of the University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences.

Bearden paid a visit to a 40-acre peanut farm northwest of Baker and just inside Santa Rosa County. The farm’s 50-year-old owner, Shannon Nixon, is a Baker native who has been a farmer most of his life.

Nixon grows cotton, peanuts and soybeans on a total of about 600 acres, almost all of which are located in Okaloosa County. Of that total, 270 acres contain peanut plants. He plans to rotate his 40-acre spread and plant cotton once his peanut crop is harvested.

Harvest time stretches through September and October.

“This is basically like a factory,” Nixon said while driving a tractor that pulled an inverter, which turned his peanut plants over so they could dry in the sun. “The difference is, it’s outside. Peanut farming is like an assembly line. It takes a lot of management.”

Nearby, friend Eric Evers drove another tractor and inverter through other parts of Nixon’s field. Evers is the younger brother of the late farmer and longtime state lawmaker Greg Evers.

Eric Evers has about 100 acres of farmland in Okaloosa County, Bearden said.

So why was he helping out Nixon?

“That’s what farmers do,” Bearden said.

‘Everybody is a consumer’

All the farms in Okaloosa County and 97 percent of the farms nationwide are family-owned, Bearden said.

She said cotton and peanuts often run neck and neck as far as being the top crop in Okaloosa County.

According to the latest statistics available, 2,204 acres of cotton and 2,049 acres of peanuts were planted in Okaloosa County in 2015. More than 4,000 tons of peanuts were produced that year, and their gross value totaled almost $1.5 million.

Bearden said 1 acre of peanuts produces enough of the legumes to make about 30,000 peanut butter sandwiches. At that rate, the 2,049 acres planted in 2015 would provide enough peanuts for more than 61 million peanut butter sandwiches.

The peanuts produced by Nixon are sold to the Alpharetta, Georgia-based Golden Peanut Co. and later are used to make peanut butter and an array of treats and candies, such as Little Debbie snack cakes and Mars’ peanut M&M’s.

Bearden said it costs $500 to $700 per acre to put in a peanut crop. That amount includes the cost of seeds and crop chemicals. At the selling rate of $375 to $425 per ton of peanuts, farmers need to produce at least two tons of peanuts per acre to at least break even.

This year’s peanut crop “looks good,” Nixon said.

While he said that “getting done” with the harvest is his favorite part of the job, Nixon obviously takes a lot of pride in being a farmer.

“Everybody is a consumer, and what they’re consuming is agricultural products,” he said.

He said farming is a very risky business, with no guarantees. Farmers must deal with an array of pests, including fungus, insects and deer that attack their livelihood, and must pay constant attention to changing weather conditions, Nixon said.

In addition, farmers must be business savvy and keep up to date on the changing, expensive agricultural technology, he said.

Those latter points hit home, literally, this past summer. His high-tech tractor, which includes computers that help guide it up and down rows of crops, was struck by a bolt of lightning in July. The cost to repair the damage was $33,000.

A brand new version of the tractor can cost more than $200,000, Nixon said.

Little snack, big punch

Several weeks after peanut plants are planted in April and May, their yellow flowers are pollinated and the plant’s tiny “pegs” slowly extend down into the soil. There, the peanut embryo in the peg gradually grows into a peanut.

New flowers and pegs will grow throughout the season, Bearden said. Nodules on the legumes’ roots take nitrogen out of the air and put it into the plants, while bacteria in the nodules receive nutrients from the plants, she said.

Near the end of the growing season, farmers and extension office officials dig up some of the plants, use a low-pressure pressure washer to remove the peanuts’ outer shells and inspect the color of the pods to determine maturity.

“The peanuts that are dark brown or black are more ready to harvest,” Bearden said.

She said peanuts are filled with nutrients.

“I think peanut allergies scare some people, but food pantries like to distribute peanuts because they’re so packed with protein, vitamins and minerals and the healthy fats that we need,” Bearden said.

And Nixon said the little legumes are what keep him in the highly challenging farming industry.

Overall, “there’s a lot of satisfaction in farming," he said. "And there’s a lot of competitiveness, and that’s good. You want the respect of your fellow farmers. Even if they don’t like you, you want them to respect you.”