The Oklahoma peanut industry is “on the rebound,” with 16,000 acres expected to be planted this year and potential to reach 20,000 in the next few years, according to Oklahoma Peanut Commission Executive Director Ron Sholar.
Sholar, in opening remarks at the annual Oklahoma Peanut Expo, March 23, in Altus, said the industry has done an about-face from this time last year. “We saw a lot of storm clouds over the peanut industry last year,” he said. “We still see some clouds, and we still face some challenges, but things are better.”
Sholar noted that Oklahoma at one time planted 500,000 acres of peanuts, “mostly for oil. Oklahoma was a major producer.”
He says the 16,000 acre estimate is a significant increase from last year’s 11,000 planted acres. “We need the acreage,” he adds, “to maintain a critical mass of production to retain the industry. I’d like to see us get to 20,000 acres.”
Sholar says “an excellent crop in 2016 and better contract prices for 2017,” encouraged farmers to plant more peanuts.
WE GOT YOUR BACK
Growers have strong support within the state,” he adds. “Somebody has your back. USDA-ARS and Oklahoma State University have developed four new varieties in the past few years.” Red River Runner, OLe’, Venus and Lariat came out of Kelly Chamberlin’s USDA-ARS breeding program.
Weed and disease management research at the OSU Caddo Research Station also help peanut farmers improve production. “County Extension agents, regional Extension specialists, Oklahoma Genetics Incorporated, the National Peanut Board (NPB), USDA’s Risk Management Agency, Mesonet and the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry,” are other important partners for Oklahoma’ peanut producers.
Les Crall, a producer and Oklahoma’s representative to the National Peanut Board, says he is pleased with the possibilities in 2017. “I’m excited about the contracts (around $500 a ton). That’s good for the industry. It’s hard to grow peanuts without a decent contract. We’re still not where we want to be, but it is encouraging, and perhaps we are turning the corner.”
He agrees with Sholar’s assessment of the USDA-ARS breeding program in Stillwater. “I am proud of the work Rebecca Bennett and Kelly Chamberlin (USDA-ARS); John Damicone (OSU Extension plant pathologist); and others do for Oklahoma peanuts. We are trying to grow the best crop we can for our customers.”
Crall says the farmer-funded NPB has contributed $21 million to peanut research and promotion since 2001, and notes that promotion efforts are particularly important with a “generation of children who are growing up with negative impressions about peanuts.”
Negative news mainly centers on allergies and includes much misinformation. A significant NPB focus aims to correct misconceptions. “Less than 1 percent of adults are allergic to peanuts,” Crall says.
“That means 99.4 percent are not allergic to peanuts. That’s a story peanut farmers should be telling.”
He adds that not one case of anaphylactic shock has ever been attributed to peanuts that were not ingested. The allergen is not airborne. Perception plays a role, he says and adds that skin prick allergen tests often show false positives for peanut allergies. “The best test is a food challenge, properly monitored.”
He also discussed recent surveys that show early exposure of children to peanuts reduces potential for developing allergies later in life. “We look for the next generation to be peanut lovers,” he says.
Ryan Lepicier, NPB vice president for marketing and communications, says farmers play an important role in providing information about peanut allergies. Part of that role is informing friends and families about the research. Also, through their support of NPB, they reach thousands of consumers.
“NPB us funded by farmers; decisions are made by farmers; and our mission is to improve the economic condition of peanut farmers.”
Relevant marketing, he says, is an important aspect of promotion. Last year the NPB created a social media campaign to reach a new audience, millennials, who rely on media such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to stay in touch and to get information. “NPB created Peanut Vendor to target millennials,” Lepicier said. The online personality provides information about peanuts and focuses on trends and activities to push the message. After a year, Peanut Vendor has more than 30,000 followers and some 9 million interactions. Peanut Vendor is talking to 1,410 people every day,” Lepicier says.
Other promotions include partnering with professional football and a new rewards program. “We reward people with peanut products from sponsoring companies,” Lepicier said.
“We have good news about peanut allergies. A new government study on peanut allergies will drive future studies. Peanut allergy is not the most prevalent food allergy, but it gets the most attention.”
The industry hopes future findings on how the allergy occurs and the advantage of early exposure will eliminate the misconceptions and focus on the benefits of peanuts. “Peanuts are now labeled as healthy by the Food and Drug Administration,” Lepicier says. “That’s a result of the changed perception of fats.”
He adds that NPB works closely with schools and other agencies to discourage institutions from banning peanuts. “Banning foods in schools does not protect children from food allergies,” he says. “It does create a false sense of security.”
He explains that food bans can’t completely eliminate the potential for a banned product from entering the school. Students may unknowingly bring in a cracker, candy bar or other food item that contains a banned food, even with the prohibition in place. Some foods can’t be banned, he says. “Law prohibits banning dairy products.
“NPB prefers to help schools develop food allergy management programs.”