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Can a niche market create a resurgence of peanuts for New Mexico?

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Declining water has limited what Jim Chandler and his son Colin can grow on the farm they operate near Portales, New Mexico. But peanuts play an important role as a stable and consistent enterprise in what was once a key production area for Valencia peanuts. Chandler, representing the New Mexico Peanut Growers Association at the American Peanut Research and Education Society (APRES) annual meeting in Albuquerque, said his father started growing peanuts many years ago and their acreage peaked at about 1,800 in 1984.

“Peanuts were a vital part of the eastern New Mexico economy. It’s still important,” Chandler says.

Growing peanuts in an area with declining water is challenging, and is one factor in acreage reduction over the years. Competition from dairies moving in from California also took acreage away from peanuts, he says.

“Dairies began buying up land and competing for acres and water. At the time, dairies could make more money than peanuts.

“Wells have declined significantly.” Currently, the farm has only 30 acres of Valencia peanuts—all irrigated. “We’ve had to retire some wells and concentrate water. At one time, we grew a lot of different crops—peanuts, cantaloupes, cotton, corn, and chile.” The farm now includes about 3,000 acres, including the 30 acres of peanuts, about 800 acres of dryland corn—planted just last week following a hail storm that took out 800 acres of dryland cotton—semi-irrigated cotton and irrigated corn. They also do custom work cutting hay.

LATE CORN A RISKY VENTURE

Chandler says the late dryland corn may be risky. “Hail took out the cotton early in the week, so we got the insurance adjuster in and then had 800 acres of corn planted by Saturday. We planted for a low population with a short season hybrid. We just hope it makes before frost.”

He says although peanut acreage is down significantly from the peak, it has been and continues to be an important crop for the farm and for eastern New Mexico. “We’re seeing a come-back. Some dairies are having trouble and now peanuts offer a better opportunity to make a profit.”

Valencias, he adds, offer good contract opportunities at $750 a ton. “Organic Valencia contracts have gone to $1,450 a ton, and organic yields have equaled conventional in this area. But their production costs are high.”

He says running steel across the fields instead of applying herbicides adds a lot of expense.

Chandler also notes that 90 percent of the peanuts grown in New Mexico are organic, though his are not. “We have a good market and consistent buyers,” he said.

He concedes that the Valencia peanut is a niche market, “but it’s a good niche.”

The area around Portales, he says, is ideal for Valencias. “We are high and dry. The only foliar disease we have is occasional web blotch.”

He also notes that the peanuts were under the same hail storm that took out the dryland cotton, but survived.  “Peanuts withstand hail damage better than cotton,” he says.

He would like to see a resurgence of peanut acreage in the area. “We hope to see research provide some help. Work is underway on drought tolerance, looking for varieties that increase production with less water. We also are looking for a high oleic Valencia variety.”

Chandler says Colin has taken over management duties on the farm. “I recently retired.” He’s still active, however, and says farming is all Colin ever wanted to do. “He’s been farming since he was six, and his son also wants to farm.”

He hopes peanuts remain a vital part of the operation. “Peanuts have sustained us over the years,” he says. “Peanuts have been a stable option. It’s a good rotation crop and is good for the soil.”

He also offered some sound advice to folks from other states. “When you eat New Mexico chile, you might feel a little heat,” he says. “Peanut butter is the best thing you can eat to cool down the fire from the chile.”

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