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New Mexico State University

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New Mexico ranks first in production of organic peanuts

CLOVIS, N.M. - While the national picture for peanut production is not good, farmers in New Mexico are taking advantage of an increasing demand for organically grown peanuts.

Peanut breeder Naveen Puppala discusses peanut production during the 2006 field day at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Clovis. (NMSU photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Peanut production across the nation fell 29 percent during 2006, according to the American Peanut Council's 2006 Crop Production Report, and the planted area - 1.24 million acres - is the lowest in the United States since 1915. But the economic factors that can sour the prospects of producing a profitable peanut crop elsewhere are not having much impact on the High Plains of eastern New Mexico.

Production of organic peanuts in this part of the state is so strong that New Mexico is now the top producer in the United States of the popular nuts.

"Consumer preference has changed and more and more people are interested in buying organic products from the grocery stores," said Naveen Puppala, peanut breeder at New Mexico State University's Agricultural Science Center at Clovis. "In the United States, only two percent of the food supply is grown using organic methods. It is a niche market that favors environmentally sustainable growing methods."

The reward for organic production can be high for those who make the effort. Valencia peanut growers earn about $1,000 per ton compared to the conventional $550 per ton, Puppala said.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sales of organic products are increasing 20 percent a year and it is the fastest growing sector of agriculture. The demand for organic peanuts is so high that every year it is very difficult to meet the demand.

"A short growing season, low humidity and the sandy nature of the soil makes perfect conditions in eastern New Mexico and West Texas for growing organic peanuts," Puppala said. "Roosevelt County ranks first in New Mexico in production of Valencia peanuts. Some organic growers' yields are as good as or even higher than those of conventional growers."

Most of the organic peanuts are processed for peanut butter, with far fewer sold, whether in-shell or shelled, for candy companies.

New Mexico, Texas and Georgia are the only states where organic peanuts are grown on a commercial scale. New Mexico ranks number one, producing 25 million pounds of organic peanuts on about 10,000 acres. Average organic yields are about 2,500 pounds per acre, conservatively, but some growers produce 3,000 to 4,000 pounds per acre. The net profit for an average organic grower is $600 to $700 per ton. Input costs range from $300 to $400 per ton. The most expensive input cost is labor to hoe weeds.

To turn from conventional production to organic production, a grower must meet the requirements to become certified.

"For organic peanut certification, a grower needs to plan at least three years ahead before starting organic farming," Puppala said. "A grower needs to stop applying synthetic chemicals to his farm at least three calendar years to achieve certification."

To become certified, a grower needs an application form, a registration fee and an inspection of the farm.

"Organic growers need to document all the operations they perform and be able to maintain good records of their farms, otherwise they can be turned down by an inspector," Puppala said.

In Curry, Roosevelt and Lea counties, organic peanut producers can supplement income by selling the forage from the peanuts to an organic dairy at $60 a bale, Puppala said.

Puppala, who has been at the Clovis science center since 1999, will continue his research this summer as the peanut breeding program focuses on screening a promising germplasm from the U.S. Valencia Core Collection. The germplasm produces plants with early vigor, which suppresses weed growth; the plants have high yield; and the peanuts have the sweet taste of Valencia, Puppala said.