Climate change and sustainability are not only buzzwords for today’s consumers. Sustainability is at the core of the peanut industry’s mission, especially with the creation of Sustainable U.S. Peanuts. Climate change, however, is a newer problem that is affecting farms. Peanut farmers in different regions of the peanut belt may face different issues, but collectively all face mounting weather threats, which brings new challenges.
Droughts aren’t new for peanut farmers. However, droughts are becoming more frequent and are lasting longer. Texas Peanut Producers Board (TPPB) Executive Director Shelley Nutt explains that heat in Texas combined with the wind is drawing whatever moisture there is from the soil. This creates a climactic environment not favorable for rainfall. The heat, hot wind and lack of rainfall are the number one issue for all Texas farmers and ranchers, especially this year. Nutt notes that this is the worst drought to plague the entire state of Texas that she’s personally experienced in her twenty years working for TPPB.
Westly Drake, a fourteenth-generation peanut farmer in Virginia, experiences similar issues with lack of rainfall.
“As an industry, I think the most pressing issue in the future will be areas of expanding drought, and a shortage of irrigation water in arid climates that currently produce peanuts,” Drake said. “High temperatures in the summer are an area of concern for me because high temperatures dry the soil out faster, which can create drought stress on the crops.”
Due to the increasing threat of drought and water shortage concerns, Drake anticipates a possible future reduction in the number of peanut acres grown in the Southwest.
Those who have been in the industry for decades can recount the changes in weather patternsand occurrences becoming more extreme and frequent.
“Prior to his passing a few years ago, my grandfather used to tell me that he did not think the weather long ago was as extreme as it is today,” Drake said. “He remembered the weather being less severe, and the rainfall gentler and more widespread.”
“I've seen haboobs1, flooding rains, ice storms that shut down the state for almost a week, 40-plus days of 100-plus degree temperatures, and as large as baseball-sized hail. So, is the weather changing? That's hard to know,” Nutt said. “I think weather is cyclical and I do believe most of Texas is in a hotter and drier than average cycle, but will it change? I don't know the answer to that, but I certainly hope so.”
Peanut farmers have also noted that insects are becoming more of an issue now than they were in the past. Drake explains that in Virginia, he and other peanut farmers don’t plow land or till much before the winter. Tillage is used as a way to combat pests that burrow below the soil surface during the winter. Typically, several hard freezes in the winter will kill some of the pests underground without having to till the land.
“Without tillage and hard freezes, pests seem to emerge much earlier in the spring and are able to develop higher adverse populations much earlier in the growing season,” Drake said.
Drake thinks the largest concern is the increasing resistance that some insects are building towards common insecticides.
“An implemented pest management strategy encourages the use of multiple different insecticides rather than just using the same one over and over,” Drake said.
So, with all these changes and farmers consistently having to deal with increasingly intense storms, droughts and insects, what can we do? Well, the first thing we can do is adapt — a practice that farmers are very familiar with. Continuing to invest in production research is essential to the future of farming as well. Through the National Peanut Board, America’s peanut farmers have funded $45.4 million into production research projects to increase drought tolerance and disease resistance, improve water efficiency, and identify traits through the Peanut Genomic Initiative that will help farmers further adapt.
“Farmers know how to adapt,” Nutt said. “Daily, they deal with too much heat, too much rain, not enough rain, early freezes, late freezes, the market changes, the demand for different varieties change, some weeds grow resistant while new weeds pop up, etc. They're ‘masters of modification.’”