Meet Your Farmers: Wes Shannon, a Peanut Farmer in Tifton, Georgia
"Boiled peanuts are considered the caviar of the south."
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of spending some time with Wes Shannon, a peanut farmer in Tifton, Georgia. My company Peanut Butter & Co. only uses peanuts grown in the United States, and we try to maintain a tight connection with these farmers.
While I had met Shannon before, this was my first visit to his farm. He took a break from the harvest to talk to me about peanuts and peanut farming. He even let me drive the tractor and dig up some of the peanuts!
How are peanuts grown? Well, we usually plant peanuts in mid-May. The soil is good and warm by then so the seeds germinate and come up quickly and grow well. That puts our harvest in late September or early October. That's usually a drier part of the year, and we need dry weather to plow the peanuts up from the ground.
You mentioned seeds—the seed of the peanut plant is the peanut that we eat, right? That's exactly right. When we harvest the peanuts, we consider them "live" peanuts. If you were to put those back in the ground, you'll get a peanut plant. But of course that changes in the roasting process. You can't plant a roasted peanut and expect it to come up.
Good to know! So what it's like to be a peanut farmer. Well, there are farmers and then there are peanut farmers. I raise some other crops but I love being known as a peanut farmer. It's a legacy here in the South. Mostly because it's such a nutritious food, and peanuts don't grow just anywhere, so that's sort of special too.
In school we learn about George Washington Carver, the great innovator of peanut farming. He promoted the growing of peanuts in rotation with other crops—what exactly does that mean? Well, we grow a lot of cotton here in the South, and cotton is a crop that we usually rotate with peanuts. Peanuts, as a legume, make their own nitrogen and leave some in the soil. And the cotton, well that crop needs nitrogen, and it leaves behind traces of some other things in the soil that help the peanuts. One crops sort of feeds off the other.
So Wes, how do you like to eat peanuts? My favorite is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I can eat smooth but I really like crunchy better. I also like to eat a handful of cocktail peanuts in the morning with breakfast. It's a great way to start the day.
Boiled peanuts—that's something a lot of people have probably never tried. Boiled peanuts are considered the caviar of the south. You need to have a taste for them though. Most of us Southern folks do and love them, but if you're not used to them, you might not like them at first.
How do you prepare them, and what do they taste like? The best way to make boiled peanuts is to get fresh picked peanuts, what we call "green" peanuts, before they're even dried, and you boil them up. They have a bit of a peanutty taste but take on more of a vegetable-type taste. Like a bean. You can add salt and pepper and all kind of spices.
Tell us more about the harvest process. Well today we've dug the peanuts out of the ground and flipped them upside down. We'll leave them in the sun for 3 to 5 days to dry out.
They'll go from about 50 percent moisture to about 15 percent moisture. Then we come through with the combine which picks the peanuts off the plant and leaves the vine on the field to recharge the soil as it breaks down. Then the peanuts go into a silo. They'll be sold to get roasted like a ballpark peanut or shelled, then roasted and turned into something like peanut butter.
Sounds like a lot of work, but I know it's worth it. Wes, thanks for showing me around your farm today. Come back soon. Next time I'll have some boiled peanuts cooked up for us to eat.
Note: Lee Zalben, a.k.a. "the Peanut Butter Guy" is the creator of the Peanut Butter & Co., a New York sandwich shop with a national line of nut butters. Every week he chimes in with some nuttiness.