At the Perrow family farm in Cameron, the only crops grown these days on its 2,200 to 2,500 acres are cotton and peanuts.
Brothers Drake and Moss Perrow, who are fourth-generation farmers, used to plant cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat – the works – in the hopes of mastering production to maximize profits.
That has changed. Ten years ago, on farmland that can be traced back to a grant from the King of England in the 1740s and where cotton has always been king, the Perrow brothers cut back on cotton to make room for peanuts.
That’s right, peanuts.
In just over a decade, peanuts have experienced a meteoric rise as South Carolina’s go-to cash crop, turning out a yield per acre higher than most other crops. In 2003, peanuts were grown on just 19,000 acres of South Carolina farmland. Today, they are grown on 110,000 acres.
While the average acre of South Carolina farmland generates $600 in gross revenue, peanuts until recently generated an average of $1,000 per acre, according to the S.C. Department of Agriculture.
South Carolina’s peanut crop is a major reason for the growing impact of agribusiness in South Carolina. In 2013, agribusiness had a $41.7 billion economic impact on South Carolina, according to a Clemson University study. That was an increase of 23 percent since 2006. Agribusiness includes the state’s forestry industry, farms, and businesses that process cotton, peanuts and other crops grown in the state.
The state Department of Agriculture wants to increase the impact of agribusiness to $50 billion by 2020, according to Commissioner of Agriculture Hugh Weathers.
One of the agency’s strategies for achieving that goal is working with farmers who are interested in switching to crops that bring in more revenue. Among the most successful transitions has been to peanuts.
While the per-acre revenue generated by South Carolina-grown peanuts has fallen a bit this year to about $800, farmers say the projected revenue still is not, well, peanuts.
“We’ve paid some bills with some peanut money,” Drake Perrow said. “Peanuts, since we started growing ’em, I have not seen our yields go down at all. We always shoot for 2 tons (production per acre), and most years we’ve done that. Everybody around has been making 2-ton peanuts.”
In some years, farmers have yielded up to 2.5 tons per acre of peanuts and some even 3 tons per acre, Perrow said.
He predicts the drop in peanut prices will be temporary. “I think it will take another year” to work off what buyers say is a surplus among some varieties of peanuts.
Georgia, which produces more than 500,000 acres of peanuts, dwarfs South Carolina’s production. But the Palmetto State is ideal for growing peanuts, experts say. Because they are legumes, peanuts add nitrogen to the soil, which enhances the growth of other crops planted in the same fields the following year, such as cotton. Peanuts also serve as a natural pest control of sorts by destroying nematodes, pests that attack cotton but cannot live on peanut plants, Perrow noted.
In the 1980s, soybeans were thought to be the fair-headed successor to cotton as the king cash crop in the state, but the crop proved largely unworkable in South Carolina, ill-suited to the soil and often producing low yields, farmers said.
Planting dry land corn – corn without irrigation – was risky, Perrow said. So in 2003, when peanut farming came to the state in earnest, the Perrows and other farmers decided to cut back on cotton planting in favor of adding peanut acreage.
A big factor in boosting peanut production in South Carolina was a 2002 change in federal government regulations regarding peanut planting.
“In 2002, the government said the quota system no longer applies to peanuts,” said Perrow, who also is a consultant to about 30 growers, regularly checking their cotton and peanuts for disease and other maladies that might hinder a successful crop.
The policy change is “what actually led to the shift of acres, because we were then at liberty to plant peanuts on acres that heretofore did not have a (federal) peanut allotment. That’s what really led to the explosion of acres in South Carolina,” said Frank Rogers, a Blenheim farmer.
Up until 2002, less than 9,500 acres of peanuts were being planted in the Palmetto State. In 2003, at the end of the 70-year-old federal peanut allotment system, planted acreage in the state nearly doubled to 19,000 acres.
The Perrows each year plant one-third of the 2,200 acres they farm in peanuts. The rest is planted in cotton. They considered getting back into corn planting, but looked at the approximate $2 million cost of buying combines and putting up a grain silo and decided to stay put.
“Peanuts have saved a lot of growers,” Perrow said. “There is no doubt in my mind there are farmers who would not be in business today if it weren’t for peanuts coming in.”
South Carolina farmers are able to grow the Virginia-type of peanut typically grown from North Carolina northward, or the runner peanut typically grown in Georgia.
“We can go either way,” Perrow said. “This land had never seen peanuts and just made outstanding yields and good prices.”
Rogers, who farms several thousand acres of crops each year in the Pee Dee, said farmers in states like Virginia and North Carolina began backing away from peanuts in part because their yields fell.
“Largely, they had been producing peanuts for many years,” Rogers said, “and their soils over time began to see a lag in yield.” South Carolina’s soils, which had not grown peanuts, produced yield increases over other states.
“So largely, we were very anxious to find an alternative to other crops such as cotton and tobacco. And those states were seeing their yield decline over time and, economically, we could produce peanuts in South Carolina somewhat cheaper than they could.”
Peanuts require a three to four-year rotation period. Peanuts should not be grown on the same field in consecutive years. For instance, a 50-acre field planted in peanuts in 2015 should be planted in a different crop in 2016, then a different crop in 2017, before being replanted in peanuts again in 2018, Rogers said.
“By virtue of the fact that the peanuts cannot be continuously grown, and those acres have to be rotated on a three- or four-year rotation, you cannot have large numbers of acres of peanuts,” Rogers said.
Rogers, a 1977 Clemson graduate who has been farming since 1979, plants about one-fourth as many acres in peanuts as he does in cotton, so he is able to move his peanut crop from field to field each year and avoid diseased soil. A fourth-generation farmer, Rogers plants cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat and peanuts.
Along with his son, Pat, a 2005 Clemson graduate with a degree in packaging science, Rogers farms about 575 acres of peanuts.
The transition to peanuts is one example of the agriculture department’s focus on increasing agribusiness in South Carolina.
“We feel very passionately that agriculture is the how our rural counties in South Carolina will have the better opportunities for growth,” said Weathers, state agriculture commissioner.
The efforts are focused on “growing literally from the ground up” with farmers who want to diversify crops, he said. “Or, the other side of that development is to go out to other parts of the world and try to attract agri-related businesses to come to South Carolina. We don’t have a BMW, Boeings and Volvos in agriculture, but we do have food processing.”
He believes South Carolina is in a good position to to recruit more food processing businesses “because we are on the East Coast in such a good location where all the population of this country is.”
For the state to attract food processors, its farmers will need to produce crops for the processing companies, Weathers said.
That’s happened some with peanuts. A company in Dillon started handling peanuts. Then Pee Dee Peanuts in Marion started handling sales, making marketability much closer, simpler and less expensive, Rogers said.
“That was a huge advantage to us to be able to have a local outlet for our peanuts,” Rogers said. A shelling station is under consideration in Darlington County, and the state has several peanut buying stations in operation.
So, will we see continued expanded acres in South Carolina? “At some point in time, your industry matures,” Rogers said. “There’s only a limited number of acres of availability. I think we are approaching that.” Rogers said he thinks the rate of growth witnessed by S.C. peanut farmers over the past 10 years is unsustainable.
“I do believe the industry, though, is certainly here to stay. The commitment that these companies have made, with the facilities they are now buying peanuts from, indicates that they intend to be here for the long haul. I would say the industry and the crop – as long as peanuts are going to be grown in this country, I think they’ll be grown in South Carolina.”
Roddie Burris: 803-771-8398
To see a video of Drake Perrow, visit thestate.com.