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'Peanut town' worries about economic future

As the nationwide salmonella outbreak spreads, Blakely — the self-proclaimed “Peanut Capital of the World” — has found itself defending the peanut, not celebrating it.
Salmonella Outbreak Peanut Town
The peanut butter plant that produced the suspect peanut paste is a major employer here, and many of its workers are out of jobs.Ric Feld / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

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.”

Industry experts also have said they don’t expect the current outbreak to have a lasting effect on peanut production. Nathan Smith, an associate professor at the University of Georgia and an extension economist, said the outbreak and last year’s bumper crop could push down peanut prices this year. But he said the demand for the legume has been strong and there has been steady growth in recent years in peanut butter sales.

Allen Whitehead, a peanut farmer in Ashburn, about 90 miles from Blakely, generally plants about 500 acres of peanuts, between 700 and 900 acres of cotton and about 250 to 300 acres of corn. He said it’s too early to tell whether he’ll change that mix as a result of the salmonella outbreak.

“At this point, it has no effect on what I intend to plant,” Whitehead said. “We’ll wait and see what the other commodities bring in relation to the price of peanuts. That determines our planting and how much we will plant of each commodity.”

Wes Shannon, who grows peanuts near Tifton, about 95 miles from Blakely, usually plants about 30 percent of his land with peanuts and the remainder with cotton. The salmonella outbreak, combined with last year’s abundant crop, could drive down peanut prices and prompt him to switch more acres to cotton, Shannon said.

Blakely erected its peanut statue in 1954 “in tribute to the peanut, which is so largely responsible for our growth and prosperity,” according to its inscription. Though nearby Dothan, Ala. also claims to be the world’s peanut capital, here, residents cling proudly to their peanut heritage, even hanging peanut banners on light posts around the town’s Court Square.

Still, the town has taken other steps to diversify. Like many small rural communities across the country that are struggling to keep pace with modern life as industrial jobs and even farming are outsourced abroad, Early County, which surrounds Blakely, is working to redefine itself. A generous grant of more than $2 million from a foundation started by Blakely native and businessman Charles Rice and his wife was used to launch a 50-year economic revitalization program called Early County 2055.

Goals include pursuing alternative energy sources and distribution centers. A new $25 million biodiesel facility is expected to create 50 new jobs this year and a total of 250 by the time it is finished, said Lisa Collins, the program’s director of economic development.

That doesn’t mean the outbreak will have no effect on Blakely. While farming may be safe, about 50 plant jobs were lost last month when the Peanut Corp. plant shut down amid a federal investigation into the outbreak. That closure came on the heels of about 100 jobs lost at the nearby Georgia Pacific paper mill.

“In a little agricultural community such as ours, losing 50 jobs in one location and 100 in another, it’s really difficult,” said Hall, the mayor. “The thing that is mind boggling here is, what are these people going to do because there aren’t a lot of opportunities here.”