<!--:es-->‘Peanut town’ worries about economic future<!--:-->

‘Peanut town’ worries about economic future

BLAKELY, Ga. – This rural stretch of southwest Georgia has long been tied to the peanut, and to give the region’s famed cash crop due reverence, an 8-foot monument topped by a peanut carved from marble sits in the shadow of the town’s historic downtown courthouse.

The legume’s legacy is everywhere: Peanut fields abound, and about an hour and a half’s drive away is the childhood home of the nation’s most famous peanut farmer, former President Jimmy Carter.

But lately the self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World” has found itself defending the peanut, not celebrating it. Blakely was thrust into the center of a nationwide salmonella outbreak that has sickened some 550 people and prompted international product recalls. The peanut butter plant that produced the suspect peanut paste is a big employer here, and its workers are out of jobs.

“This is an unfortunate thing, and I hate that our community has become known for this,” said Ric Hall, mayor of Blakely, a town of about 5,300. “But we’re optimistic, and we’re working just as hard as we can to get through this.”

Even before the outbreak, there were signs in recent years that peanut fortunes were fading — and local agriculture specialists hope steps they’ve taken to protect themselves will be enough to pull the area through. While the region’s farmers continue to plant peanuts, other crops and industry are gaining ground.

“We are certainly trying to bring more industry to the area because, God knows, we’re going to dry up if we don’t,” said Olin Thompson, chairman of the Early County Development Authority.

Farmers may plant fewer acres of peanuts this year, Hall said, but that has little to do with the outbreak at the Peanut Corp. of America plant. It has more to do with the fact that farmers harvested a bumper crop of peanuts in the fall, and shifting government subsidies.

Peanuts are still a main crop in the region, but local farmers have been planting more cotton recently. Farmers in surrounding Early County last year planted about 42,000 acres of cotton, about 25,000 acres of peanuts, about 7,500 acres of corn and about 7,000 acres of soybeans, said county extension coordinator Brian Creswell.

Farmers in the area have planted more cotton than peanuts for the last eight to ten years, he said, mostly because peanuts require a three-year rotation and cotton has proven to be the most profitable interim crop.

Peanut profits also are less certain. Farm law guarantees farmers a certain price for their crops when the market drops, and under the Bush administration, the Agriculture Department set into motion steps that would lower the price guaranteed for peanuts, but not for other crops like cotton. That change was supposed to take effect last year, but the department postponed it until this year after outcry from peanut farmers.

“We are an agricultural community and our economy is based on the land,” Hall said. “Cotton has become a very viable crop because of government support, but most of the price supports on peanuts have been greatly reduced.”