NICK EICHER, HOST: Today is Tuesday, September 29th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Nick Eicher.
MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. Coming next on The World and Everything in It: Peanuts.
Whether dry roasted, boiled, or turned into butter, peanuts have always been a popular staple food, with more than 5 billion pounds produced in the United States last year.
EICHER: But with more people eating at home, there’s even more PB&Js on the table than usual. That means the peanut industry is busier than ever. Senior Correspondent Kim Henderson takes us now to meet a Mississippi farmer doing his best to keep up with demand.
KIM HENDERSON, SENIOR CORRESPONDENT: Carlisle Lane is a strip of blacktop that leads to pretty much nowhere—except vast fields of whatever’s in season. Right now, it’s peanuts.
The smell of them hangs in the air, thanks to a pair of combines working hard to get in this year’s harvest. They’re kicking up dust clouds, too, as thick, well, as peanut butter.
FORTNER: You know, they grow in dirt. They have to come out of dirt. So it’s dirty…
That’s Lonnie Fortner, owner of Bayou Pierre Farms. He manages nearly 4,000 acres of diversified crops spread out over 60 miles. He does it from his “office”—a 4 by 4 Tundra so dusty you can’t even read the tag.
But in spite of the dust, it’s the rains from recent hurricanes that are causing problems. Fortner calls them “tornadoes on water skis.”
FORTNER: At this point in time in the year, we can’t do anything different. We’re all in. It’s very expensive nowadays to grow crops. It doesn’t matter what crop it is. And so this time of year you’re in harm’s way. You live in fear all the time of the hurricane. And here we are two weeks in a row with the storm watch.
While he talks, a trailer pulls through the gravel parking lot beside us. It’s something Fortner calls a “nut buggy,” and it’s carrying some 15,000 pounds of peanuts.
FORTNER: We’re picking peanuts when you’re not supposed to be picking peanuts. It’s sprinkling rain and cloudy and overcast. And the vines are green, but they’re talking about 4 inches of rain coming tomorrow…
Harvesting peanuts is different from harvesting other crops. First, you have to invert them, or dig them up. Then they’re supposed to dry on top of the ground for about 5 days. After that, a combine comes through and shakes them from their vines.
So the 400 acres of peanuts here—all planted in May—are at different stages. Some in a side field are still lush, green mounds waiting for inversion.
FORTNER: Let’s see if we can find the bloom. Peanuts are a legume and they bloom on top of the ground, as you see. And when the bloom’s pollinated, it grows the peg, the peg grows to the ground, and that’s where the nuts form, as you see, there’s the peanuts, but a lot of people don’t understand that they actually start on top of the ground. You know, a lot of folks think that they’re a root, but they’re not.
Fortner grew up on the seat of a tractor, but the ag crisis of the 1980s dampened his hopes of following in his father’s footsteps.
FORTNER: It was a lot of people that did not come out the other side of that, and my family was one of those. And so it, you know, a lot of people take it for granted, but when you get out of the loop, it is very hard to get back in.
After college and a five-year stint with the USDA, Fortner joined a large farming operation and worked his way up from manager, to partner, to owner and operator. Along the way, he’s been open to new technologies and methods. His corner field represents a research project for Mississippi State University. They’re testing a growth regulator for peanuts—a spray to produce more nuts and fewer vines.
On his phone, there’s a John Deere app called “MyOperations.”
AUDIO: [SOUND OF APP DEMO]
With it, he’s able to read data from equipment in the field.
FORTNER: That button on the top left, hit that one, and then I can look and see what it’s doing. So it helps me troubleshoot some problems, um, from 20 miles away.
He has other apps that use GPS to improve planting accuracy and fertilizer application.
FORTNER: This technology has been advancing over the years. They’ve sort of forced it on us, you know. We’ve taken it and we like it and we’ve figured out how to use it on our farm, but if you don’t figure out how to use it, it’s just an expensive toy…
Even with the latest technology, things break. Today, it’s a universal joint. An employee opens his tailgate and shows an implement to Fortner.
AUDIO: [SOUND OF TALKING, GATE SHUTTING]
FORTNER: Our repair and maintenance bill at the end of the year is hard to look at.
FORTNER: There’s just so much about farming that we have no control over. You have to just give it to the good Lord and let Him take care of the things that I can’t control. Only thing I can control is how hard I work…
That work ethic has gained Fortner notice. In 2018, officials honored him with a regional farmer of the year award. Closer to home, his employees say he’s a good guy to work for. One noted, “It’s because he’s a Christian.”
Even after so many seasons of sowing and reaping, Fortner says farming is still teaching him and his family lessons about relying on God.
FORTNER: When you asked me the question about the hurricanes, my mind just rushes back. We’ve been down here for 25 years and just all the different storms we’ve gone through with crops in the fields. We still made a decent crop. We may not have made what we had, but we made enough to make it to the next year.
SONG: [PEANUT JINGLE]
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Kim Henderson in Carlisle, Mississippi.