The Peanut Industry

by Della R. Gillam

From The Windsor Story -1968. Used by permission of Harry Thompson

Ground-nut, earth-nut, ground peas, goobers -- these are the names the peanut has been known by. With the progress of time, it has emerged from its lowly state, has shed its several "noms de plume," and is now known the world over as PEANUTS. Credit for the beginning of this~can be given in great part to George Washington Carver (1864-1943), who found more than two hundred non-food uses for the peanut. His ideas of non-food uses for farm crops are the foundation of Chemurgy.

The peanut is a native of Tropical South America. India, China, French West Africa, and the United States are the largest producers. In the United States, peanuts are grown in three distinct districts: The Virginia-Carolina district grows the large Virginia type almost entirely; the Georgia-Florida- Alabama district grows Southeastern'runners, Virginia and Spanish types; the Oklahoma-Texas district grows the Spanish type. In recent years, new strains have been found -- one being the Flora Giant which can be harvested ten days to two weeks before the old strains commonly planted in our area.

It has been said that peanuts first came to the U. S. when slaves were being transported. Already known to be nutritious; they were used as food for the slaves while in transit. According to Mr. Astor Ferry, Extension Agronomy Specialist, N. C. State University at Raleigh, the first authentic reference to peanuts in our area is from Edenton in 1769. Sir William Watson reported about peanut production in the Edenton area to the Royal Society in London. While peanuts undoubtedly were being grown in Bertie County then or even before, they probably were of little commercial interest, as they were mainly used by the Negro slaves for food. Their importance slowly increased until the Civil War, but it was not until a few years after the war that they became an important cash crop.

The earliest official data on production of peanuts was collected in 1889. In that year, Bertie County produced 20,822 bushels. A bushel of the Virginia type, as we now know them, weighs about 17 pounds. Bertie County now plants 23,000 acres, yielding an average of 2,200 pounds per acre.

Mr. Terry J. Reel, editor of the PEANUT JOURNAL AND NUT WORLD, seems to think there was a definite cause and effect relationship between the development of a peanut picker and the commercial rise of peanuts. The first mechanical picker was used at Porters Neck Plantation near Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1856, and the first patent for a pea-picker was issued in 1869. While several of these were made, none were very successful. It was not until 1903 that a successful picker was made in Murfreesboro by a Mr. Benthall. So, it is safe to say that at least a few pickers were in use in our area by 1905-1906.

For contrast, we can compare "the old with the new as to methods used in the growing, harvesting, and marketing of a crop, and thereby follow the rise of the peanut as a commercial crop and as an industry.

In the beginning the seed, saved fromcrop to crop, was shelled, planted, and cultivated by hand labor. This was the procedure until the coming of the horse-drawn equipment -- the planter and the cultivator. For many years after this equipment came into use, weeding was still done by "hoe-hands." Little fertilizers were used and no means were known to prevent disease in plants. Today, shelling of the seed is done mechanically. Few farmers any longer save their seed. Instead, they buy the improved strains from authorized seed producers and dealers. Seeds are now treated with a fungicide to control disease during germination, and the plant is dusted with fungicides to control leaf diseases. Weed control, which was and still is essential, is now controlled by the use of chemicals.

Equally as great a change has taken place in the harvesting of a crop. No doubt, the peanuts were separated from the vines by hand until the invention of the picker. With the coming of the picker came a new procedure. The plants were plowed up by horse-drawn plows, the dirt shaken from them by hand, and placed on stocks. When the peanuts had dried, which took from four to six weeks in favorable weather, they were hauled by a horse-drawn rig to the picker, where they were separated from the vines and bagged in burlap bags weighing approximately one hundred pounds each. These were stored at the end of each day's picking in the "Pack House" on the premises. The vines were baled for hay, which was essential for the feeding of livestock.

peanut harvest
Photo loaned from the files of the late Charles Bond. Bertie County 250th Anniversary Edition. Sec D page 10. Sept 28, 1972. Used by permission of Harry Thompson

Now the peanuts are plowed up by tractor-drawn digging equipment. The greater portion of the crop is allowed to lie on the gound in windrows for two to three days to dry. They are then separated from the vines by mobile units (combines) and loaded in specially constructed trailers for transportation to the drying units. According to Preston Charles, Suffolk Bureau Chief of the Virginian-Pilot, it was a grave question as to whether it would pay to dry peanuts artificially. Weather conditions causing mold, rot, and freezing in the stack hastened the answer to the question. So it was that about fifteen years ago, artificial drying came into being in the Virginia- Carolina area. Commercial and privately-owned drying units are now scattered throughout the area. In our locality, commercial units are operated by Bell Brothers, Spruill Peanut Company, Fowell and Stokes and Heckstall and Miller.

With the drying completed, the peanut is now ready for marketing, and there again is quite a different procedure. For many years, in an area such as ours, the general merchant also served as a peanut broker, buying the product from the farmer and reselling to the users. These merchant- brokers went directly to the scene of the picking, drew samples and made their purchases. There was no "formal" grading such as we now have. Today, we have buying stations, representing various peanut companies, where the peanuts are graded according to U. S. Government specifications, bought and stored in bulk, rather than in burlap bags. Large storage tanks and warehouses are used for storing. In Windsor, we have as bulk buyers, Bell Brothers, Spruill Peanut Company, Powell and Stokes, Heckstall and Miller and Gillam Brothers Peanut Sheller. Now, one may object to the grading of his peanuts and refuse to sell.

It might be well to note here that even though we have had severe acreage reductions over a period of years due to the use of fertilizers, improved methods and the use of chemicals, our yield per acre has increased. As already stated, the average is about 2,200 pounds per acre; whereas, not too many years ago, 1,000 pounds to 1,200 pounds per acre were considered a bumper crop.

The shelling and processing of peanuts began about seventy-five years ago in Suffolk, Virginia; shelling for seed purposes at a much later date, but with the continued rise of the peanut as a commercial crop, there came a greater demand for this service. Organizations came into being for the purpose of shelling and treating seed, the shelling and milling of the product for the edible trade, end-users and oi~ trade. Among such industries in our area are: Gillam Brothers Peanut Sheller, Inc., of Windsor, which was organized in 1947 with the addition of the milling operations in 1952; The Albemarle Peanut Company of Edenton; National Peanut Corporation of Aulander, and the Williamston Peanut Company of Williamston.

As we have seen, manufacturing entered the picttre at the turn of the century with the invention of the picker. Other than the Benthall, made in Murfreesboro by a Mr. Benthall, the Roanoke was made by Harrington Manufacturing Company of Lewiston, and the Livermon in Roxobel. Among the manufacturers in our area of peanut harvesting equipment presently in use is Benthall, now located in Suffolk, Harrington Manufacturing Company, and Long Manufacturing Company of Tarboro.

Of the manufacturers of the finished product in the edible trade, perhaps we are most familiar with Planters Nut and Chocolate Company of Suffolk, now a division of Standard Brands, Inc. There we see diversification has entered into the peanut picture. Some other industries who have gone into the peanut field through diversification are Continental Bakeries, makers of Wonder Bread, who now own Albemarle Peanut Company of Edenton; and Lumis and Company of Suffolk, now a division of The United States Tobacco Company. Large consumers among the edible trade include such companies as Proctor and Gamble, The Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company, Deatrice Foods, Inc., Charles F· Sauer Company -- to name a few. Each has its own plant solely for the processing of peanuts·

In order to keep the peanuts for future shipment, they had to be refrigerated -- so another business: cold storage. There, the users may store their purchases for shipment at a future date. In Suffolk, there are: American Cold Storage Company (Birdsong), Mar-Ja (Pond Brothers), Supeco (Suffolk Peanut Company), and Nansemond Cold Storage Company (C· B· Pond).

Still another field has opened in recent years in our area -- the blanching industry -- where the shelled nuts are blanched and available for either immediate shipment or sent to cold storage for future shipment. The Seabrook Blanching Company is located in Edenton. In connection with and owned by Seabrook is PERT Lab, Inc., translated: Peanut Research and Testing Laboratory, Inc.

With the ever expanding uses for the peanut, the vines no longer needed for the feeding of livestock, there remains only the hulls. While there is some commercial usage for the.hulls, transportation charges are such that disposal of them is prohibitive, so we continue to burn what may one day become a valuable product·

So, it would seem that the peanut industry is in its infancy and with no bounds as to its possibilities. Even now, pressed turkey is being made from soybeans. Perhaps pressed meats from peanuts may follow and even pressed woods .T plastics from hulls -- Who Knows'.


Personal Experiences with Peanut Harvesting

Harvesting peanuts was an altogether different experience. In the fall when the peanuts were ready in the field, someone would plow them up with a peanut plow. We used mules until the late 50s when we bought the first small tractors to use in the fields. After the peanuts were dug and dried a little, farm hands would walk through the field picking up each plant and stacking it around a pole set in the ground. Very hard and dirty work. The peanuts poles were probably 8 feet long with two cross members about two feet from the bottom. Before stacking began you went through the field with a wagon loaded with peanut poles. The holes were dug by hand.

After a few weeks drying the peanuts were harvested. A peanut threshing machine was used, called a peanut picker. It was stationary, and did not move until you had the whole field threshed. The thresher was powered by a large tractor which had a belt running on the power take off of the tractor to the peanut picker. The belt was 20 or 30 long. The peanuts were brought to the picker by a mule drawn cart. You would back up to the peanut stack and wrap a chain around the pole. The chained was attached to a pole mounted on the cart. You would push down on the end opposite the stack and lift it out of the ground. The stack would be taken to the picker, where two men feed the peanuts in the front end of the picker. The picker would separate the peanuts from the vines. The peanuts went to a chute where they were hand bagged and the bag sewed up. The trash came out the back where it was fed into a stationary piston driven hay baler.. We feed our cattle with the peanut hay. It was exce llent feed.
Michael Green - descendant of Malichi Green


Other Sites about Peanuts

Bertie County Peanuts in Windsor
Enjoy some Bertie County peanuts!


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