Notes from the Alachua Peanut Gallery

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Florida’s sandy soil is a haven for more than palms and tourists – peanuts have been thriving in the Sunshine State for over a hundred years.

This photo captures local peanut farmers vending their fares at the Alachua County Fair in 1918. The sign in the front reads “Spanish Peanuts,” which are mostly grown for candies and peanut butter. Although Spanish peanuts have largely been replaced by runner varieties down South, Florida continues to be the third largest producer of peanuts in the United States.

In the early 20th century, President Washington Carver offered an incentive program to Southern peanut farmers as a way to combat the effects of cotton farming, which rids the soil of nitrogen. As a result, the 1920’s saw an unprecedented rise in peanut production, particularly through the birth of peanut-based candy bars such as the Oh Henry! (1920), Baby Ruth (1920), Butterfinger (1923), Mr. Goodbar (1925) and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup (1925).

More recently, the Farm Bill was passed to offer grants and incentives to peanut farmers across Northern Florida. Since passing the bill, Florida’s peanut acres grew from 31,000 to over 100,000, and many farmers fear a flooded market in the future, and inadequate returns.Creamy peanut butter in bowl on wooden table, close-up

Despite growing competition, there’s one area where Florida farmers continue to thrive: In the growth and sales of fresh or “green” peanuts used to make that delicious caviar of the South, boiled peanuts.

The tradition of boiling fresh peanuts comes from the practice of enslaved farm workers in the south, who first brought peanuts over from Africa. Following a harvest, the workers would collect the surplus peanut crop and hold a “peanut boil.” Their secret soon got out, and before long everyone in the South wanted a taste of the famous “goober peas” sold in local markets.

The Valencia peanuts used for boiling require more labor and a different harvesting procedure than most conventional peanuts. They have to be picked when semi-mature and either immediately shipped or stored in large coolers before going to market. Nonetheless, this Southern delicacy seems well worth the effort, as the boiled peanut market has remained stable despite drops in peanut prices across the state.

So the next time you get a hankering for a salty, protein-packed snack, look for a local brand of your favorite nuts. Florida farmers have got you covered! ~by Elizabeth Putfark

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