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Drought could affect this fall's peanut harvest

A close up picture of a wrinkled hand holding a handful of ballpark peanuts.
U of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture / Kerry Rodtnick
Peanuts take about 140-150 frost-free days to grow after farmers initially plant them, depending on the type of peanut.

Peanut farmers in the Southwest region have noticed some of their plants have been growing slower than usual because of the sweltering heat.

Wheat, corn and soybeans are just a few of the crops that have been hurt by Oklahoma’s historic drought this summer, but its effects on peanuts could even be felt well into the fall harvest.

Although peanut farmers don’t harvest their crop until early October, some in the Southwest region have noticed some of their plants have been growing slower than usual because of the sweltering heat. Nearly all peanut plants are irrigated in Oklahoma, but despite this mitigation, it’s difficult to control the brutal effects of the high temperatures.

Uniquely, peanuts — which are a type of legume, and not a nut — are the only fruit that grow below the ground. But in order for the peanut pods and seeds to set underground, the peanut plant blooms and pollinates itself above the ground.

“When the temperatures get as high as they have been recently, this can kill the pollen, and you can fail to get seed-set,” said Ron Sholar, the executive director of Oklahoma’s Peanut Commission. “So that’s what we’ve been concerned about: whether the plants are pollinating and whether we’ll have seeds formed and the pods underground.”

 A close up picture of a peanut plant bunch in front of a pair of brown worker boots.
Todd Johnson
Oklahoma State University Extension
Peanut combines gently pulls up the plant, shakes off leftover soil and rotates the plant — the peanuts facing up and leaves facing down. It’s important for peanuts to dry off in the sun for a few days in order to eventually be stored.

Like many farmers and ranchers, Sholar hopes the high temperatures subside soon so peanut pods can begin to take shape underground. He explained that May's rainy weather already delayed farmers from planting their crops during their usual season, so some peanut fields might not get harvested until November.

“By this time of the year, what you should see when you're looking at a peanut field is that it’s 100% covered over,” Sholar said. “But in many of the fields I visited, there’s not a total cover because the plants have grown so slowly… that’s how we know that the crop is a mixed bag right now.”

But waiting until November to harvest can be risky for peanut farmers — it increases the chance the crop will experience an early freeze.

“An early freeze can totally undo all the hard work [farmers] have put in for the year,” Sholar said. “It can ruin everything.”

The costs to grow peanuts, such as buying equipment, fertilizer, pesticides and fuel for irrigation, have skyrocketed this past year. Sholar emphasized that the high input costs add pressure on peanut farmers to produce a quality crop. It also means consumers will likely have to pay a higher price for their favorite peanut product.

“So much capital is invested, [peanut farmers] have to do every single thing they can to be sure they will have a positive outcome,” Sholar said. “This is why the drought is so concerning.”

Although the drought has been hard on peanut crops, Sholar says there’s still time in the growing season to produce a good crop. It’s all a matter of waiting for the extreme heat to ease up.

Oklahoma Peanut Facts

Oklahoma ranks seventh in the nation for peanut production, according to the Environmental Working Group. While peanuts are only grown on approximately 22,000 acres in 12 of the state’s 77 counties, they make up about $19 million of the state’s agricultural economy.

Three types of peanuts are grown and processed in Oklahoma: Runner, Virginia and Spanish peanuts. Runner peanuts are used almost exclusively in peanut butter and Virginia peanuts are the ballpark peanuts often sold at baseball games, Sholar said.

“[Oklahoma’s] particularly noted for our Spanish peanuts,” Sholar said. “Consumers would know these as peanuts used in candies like peanut M&M's or Payday candy bars.”

Peanuts have a small water footprint compared to other nuts like almonds, walnuts and pistachios. It just takes about three gallons of water to produce an ounce of peanuts, compared to nearly 30 gallons to produce an ounce of almonds.

To learn more about Oklahoma’s peanuts, visit Oklahoma’s Peanut Commission.

Xcaret Nuñez covered agriculture and rural communities for KOSU as a corps member with Report for America from June 2022 to September 2023.
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