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The black-and-white picture shows loading peanuts onto a truck at James Spears farm in Holmes County, Fla., in 1947. A decade later, advancements in peanut-related research and education would lead to one of the biggest jumps in yield and quality of any major U.S. farm commodity. Photo courtesy of the Department of Commerce collection at the State Archives of Florida. Modern-day peanut harvest in Georgia 2017 is also shown.

The peanut research explosion and the evolution of a society

To leverage advancements in peanut research, the Peanut Improvement Working Group, a small group, was formed in 1957. Things evolved from there.

In the mid-1950s, something positive was happening to the U.S. peanut industry and the right people were aligning to recognize it and nurture a movement that sparked a better understating of the crop’s potential.

Frank McGill, 92, was there. He witnessed the rapid expansion of research-based technologies and data and how that information could be harnessed by farmers and the peanut industry. He would become a peanut legend in his own right. Known as Mr. Peanut, he was the first fulltime Extension peanut agronomist in the country, serving from 1954 to 1982 in Georgia and later after retirement as a consultant for the manufacturing side of the industry.

(EDITOR’S NOTE — This is the second article in The Society of Peanut series, which is sponsored by AMVAC and its family of products for peanut growers including Thimet insecticide and Equus fungicide.)

“It was an explosion of research from the mid-1950s to 1960,” he said in an interview with Southeast Farm Press March 27 from his home in Tifton, Ga., pointing to new technologies and products at the time, including improved on-farm mechanization, seed treatments, fungicides and weed treatments that were being revealed by researchers during the decade following World War II.

Georgia's peanut yield increased from 955 pounds per acre in 1955 to 2,040 pounds per acre in 1967 and topped 3,220 pounds per acre by 1974; an incredible increase in yields in just two decades.

But Georgia wasn’t the only place where great strides in peanut production were taking place in the country. To leverage advancements in peanut research, the Peanut Improvement Working Group, a small group, was formed in 1957. Things evolved from there.

McGill credits Hoyt T Wilson for spearheading the idea and action needed to create a larger mechanism beyond the PIWG for peanut expertise from all regions and peanut-states to collaborate and share information to further the connection between research, Extension, education, industry and consumers. That mechanism evolved to be the American Peanut Research and Education Society, or APRES.

Wilson was a leading peanut plant pathologist and director of the Virginia Agricultural Experiment Station at Virginia Tech from 1964 to 1978. He died in 2002.

A Recognized Need

It should come as no surprise that an organization such as APRES, led by top scientists and educators, maintains an impressive archive of historical documentation, which allows voices from the past to speak for themselves today. With that in mind, there is no one more qualified than Hoyt Wilson himself to tell you about the birth of APRES, or its immediate parent APREA.

“Most organizations come into existence to meet a recognized need or needs. APREA is no exception,” Wilson writes in Peanut Science Vol. 1 Number1 dated March 1974.

The PIWG functioned well for 11 years as a primary forum for discussion of peanut research programs in seven states, Wilson says, and the group was a medium of interaction among representatives from research, Extension and industry. The annual PIWG meeting also allowed research and Extension personnel ‘to come to a fuller understanding’ of the problems faced by peanut brokers, shellers and manufacturers.

Wilson says one sentiment was reiterated over and over during the years of the PIWG. “Research and Extension programs must be concerned with production of high quality peanuts and not just with increasing yields.”

Though PIWG worked, there was a need for a better multi-disciplinary research program on peanuts.

“It has also been recognized for many years that research and Extension programs in agriculture must be closely linked and coordinated,” Wilson continues. “The problem has been, and is, to find an acceptable and workable administrative and organizational structure to meet these needs. Many approaches have been tried within universities, within the USDA and between universities and the USDA. No solution has been found that is completely satisfactory.”

Wilson plainly says the peanut industry “is a complex industry. … The problems that confront growers are different from those that confront shellers and the problems of the end users are different from those of growers or shellers. This diversity makes it difficult, if not impossible to coordinate in an effective and efficient manner all of the research and education activities of state, federal and industry agencies.

“The American Peanut Research and Education Association does not attempt to serve as a coordinating body. It does promote coordination by providing a continuing means of exchange of information and cooperative planning. It and its predecessor, the PIWG, has been remarkably successful in bringing about closer cooperation among all segments of the peanut industry,” Wilson says.

The Transition

Katie Beasley is no stranger to peanuts. Her father, John Beasley, was a longtime peanut agronomist in Georgia and is currently the head of Auburn University’s Department of Crop, Soil and Environmental Sciences. Katie spent many a summer attending the annual meeting of APRES. She is also a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University, and has been asked to pull together a timeline and share the history of APRES at its 50th annual meeting in July.

“One of the significant moments in APRES’ history was the transition from APREA to APRES. This transition highlighted what was already known, which was that APRES was continuing as a prominent force and partner in the industry,” she told Southeast Farm Press.

“APRES is also fascinating as a historical subject, because to me, APRES is like having a yearly family reunion. And it is special as a society because of its family orientation. You can also watch the evolution of APRES and see how the subsequent generations of new graduate students, scientists, etc., are shaping the direction of the society. APRES is also a reflection of how the industry is evolving, and with it, the function and role of APRES.”

Back in Tifton, McGill stops to make a point as only he can. In the mind’s eye, he holds up the ‘The Peanut: the Unpredictable Legume; A Symposium,’ the seminal 1951 textbook on the peanut.

He then holds up the completion this year of the mapping of the genetic code of the peanut, the result of a five-year research project to unlock some of the genetic potential of the peanut plant. He said a lot has happened and been accomplished by many people between those two events to advance peanuts.

“And I never thought I’d live to see the mapping of the peanut genome,” McGill said.

Asked if he’ll make the 50th annual meeting of APRES this July in Williamsburg, Va., he said, “I’ll have to see how things go with my health. But, yes, I do plan to attend. Yes, I hope to.”

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