- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 3, 2002

RICHMOND If Virginia's peanut crop lives up to dismal expectations this fall, Joseph Barlow says, he won't put a single plant into the ground next year.
He may not be alone.
Farmers across peanut country in the low-lying southeastern corner of the state were anticipating a devastating harvest this year partly because of the dry summer, but also because a farm bill signed into law by President Bush in May eliminated the quota system that kept many of these farmers afloat.
Peanuts used to be the biggest earner for farmers in this sandy pocket of Virginia, generating $55 million to $60 million a year, according to the Virginia Peanut Growers Association (VPGA).
Now, they will be lucky if the entire industry survives another year.
"I don't think there's any question a lot of farmers are going to go under," said Mr. Barlow, whose family owns a 600-acre farm straddling Isle of Wight and Suffolk counties. "I predict there will be very few, if any, peanuts planted in Virginia next year."
The situation is as shocking as it is bleak for peanut farmers, many of whom had bumper crops last year. When their crops are harvested this month, some farmers are looking at yields half the normal size, perhaps even smaller.
While the drought is the main culprit in shriveling yields Virginia's peanut fields didn't receive the rain they needed during the critical growth phase in July it hasn't been the most pressing concern for farmers.
Almost 20,000 fewer acres of peanuts were planted in the state at the beginning of the summer in expectation of the passage of the $190 billion farm bill, which raised subsidies for grain and tobacco growers across the country but eliminated the decades-old quota system for peanut growers.
The 10-year farm package rewrote the rules for all crops, but peanuts experienced perhaps the greatest change. Under the old quota system, which had existed since the Great Depression, the government guaranteed growers a minimum price for peanuts, recently more than double the world rate.
Only farmers who held special licenses could qualify for the quota price; those without licenses usually rented land with peanut quotas.
The new system is similar to that used for cotton growers, in which federal support payments are calculated from a "base" amount of the crop that farmers typically have produced. It is intended to provide more farmers with price supports, but at a lower level.
Wes Alexander, an agricultural extension agent for Southampton County, said the new system may benefit states like Texas, where production costs are lower, but not a small peanut-producing state like Virginia. Land and equipment costs in Virginia as well as the type of soil found here make peanuts a specialty crop grown on only several hundred farms, according to federal government farm statistics.
"We've changed our way of life down here," Mr. Alexander said. "This isn't something that's a temporary problem; this is a big change. We've gone from a peanut-producing area to a non-peanut-producing area."
Russell Schools, executive secretary of the VPGA, said lobbyists had urged Congress to ease into the peanut provisions, giving farmers a year to adjust their planting schedules. But the revamped farm bill was signed into law May 13, about a week after most Virginia farmers had planted their crops.
Now, Mr. Schools says, the farmers are waiting to see how the new regulations will affect their grosses this fall, though few are optimistic.
"They know they've got to accept it," he said. "Some say they'll wait a year or two, then get out of farming. Others are looking at maybe planting other crops next year.
"Many are already looking for part-time jobs. They don't know what they're going to do."
Mr. Barlow is one of those farmers, although he counts himself lucky. He owns his peanut-farming equipment outright, while many in the region still are working to pay off their gear. His family also owns their land, rather than renting, which entitles them to compensation from the government for their old quota licenses.
Mr. Barlow cut his peanut crop by 30 percent this year, replacing the lost acreage with cotton. But he said that will bring in only a fraction of what the peanuts would have grossed.
His fields also were struck by the drought, as were most farmers' in the region, rendering his peanut crop a near-certain loss.
"We thought we might have had a chance to break even," he said. "Now, there's no chance of that."
Nobody's saying how much money the industry stands to lose this year, although the regional marketing development manager for the Virginia Department of Agriculture, Gail Milteer, said the repercussions could be enormous.
"It's not only the peanut farmer [who is affected]; it's the tractor dealerships, the grocery stores," she said. "It's a trickle-down effect on the whole economy. There will be less taxes from this area of the state. Most people don't realize that."


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