Peanuts were known as early as 950 B.C. It is believed that they originated in Brazil or Peru and were carried to Africa by early explorers and missionaries. From there traders took them to Spain and "The New World". Colonial traders used the peanuts as food aboard ship as they were cheap and of high food value. The first commercial peanut crop in Virginia was grown in Sussex County (near what is now Waverly) in the early to mid 1840's.
For a long time, peanuts were considered simple fare. The War between the states helped change the peanut's status when Union Army solders found them to their liking and took them home. The call, "Hot Roasted Peanuts", was first heard in the late 1800's at P.T. Barnum's circus. Desire for peanuts spread as circus wagons traveled across the country.
The peanut was not a significant agricultural crop until the early 1900's when the boll weevil destroyed the South's cotton crop. Following the suggestion of noted scientist, Dr. George Washington Carver, peanuts replaced cotton's position in the South as a money crop. Today, peanuts are a multi-million dollar industry in Virginia and an important crop in the Southeastern states.
How Peanuts Grow - from Pegs to Pods
The peanut is unusual because it flowers above the ground, but fruits below the ground. Typical misconceptions of how peanuts grow place them on trees (like walnuts or pecans) or growing as a part of a root, like potatoes.
Peanut seeds (kernels) grow into a green oval leafed plant about 18 inches tall which develop delicate yellow flowers around the lower portion of the plant. The flowers pollinate themselves and then lose their petals as the fertilized ovary begins to enlarge. The budding ovary or "peg" grows down away from the plant, forming a small stem, which extends into the soil. The peanut embryo is in the tip of the peg, which penetrates the soil. The embryo turns horizontal to the soil surface and begins to mature taking the form of a peanut. The plant continues to grow and flower, eventually producing some 40 or more mature pods. From planting to harvesting, the growing cycle takes about four to five months, depending on the type or variety. The peanut is nitrogen-fixing plant; its roots form nodules which absorb nitrogen from the air and provides enrichment and nutrition to the plant and soils.
How Peanuts Are Planted and Harvested
Peanuts are planted and harvested with special machinery. Peanut seeds are planted about two inches deep, one every three or four inches, in rows about three feet apart. The seeds do best in sandy soil, especially soil rich in calcium. If the soil temperature is warm (65-70 F) and given enough water, the seeds will sprout. In about two weeks, the first "square" of four leaflets will unfold above the peanut field. Thirty to forty days after emergence the plants bloom and "pegs" enter the soil. The peanut hulls and kernels develop and mature during the next 60 to 70 day period. Depending on the variety, 120 to 160 frost free days are required for a good crop.
When the plant has matured and the peanuts are ready to be harvested, the farmer waits until the soil is neither too wet or too dry before digging. When conditions are right, he drives his digger up and down the green rows of peanut plants. The digger has long blades that run four to six inches under the ground. It loosens the plant and cuts the tap root. Just behind the blade, a shaker lifts the plant from the soil, gently shakes the dirt from the peanuts, rotates the plant, and lays the plant back down in a "windrow", peanuts up and leaves down.
Drying is the next important step. When dug, peanuts contain 25 - 50% moisture, which must be dried to 10% or less so the peanuts can be stored without spoiling. Peanuts are generally left in the windrows to dry for two or more days in the field, then threshed or combined.
The farmer drives his combine over the windrows. The combine lifts up the plants, separates the peanuts from the vine, blows them into a hopper on the top of the machine, and lays the vine back down in the field.
The peanuts are then dumped into wagons and dried to 10% moisture by warm air forced up through the floors of the wagon.
Farmers take their loads of peanuts to nearby peanut buying stations. At the station, the peanuts are sampled and graded by the Federal-State Inspection Service to determine their value. The inspectors establish the meat content, size of pods, kernel size, moisture content, damaged kernels and foreign material. The results of the inspection determine the overall quality and value of each load.
After the peanuts are purchased, they are placed in dry storage and eventually shelled or processed in the shell.
To learn more about peanuts, please visit aboutpeanuts.com.