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The nation’s preeminent peanut-producing state was home to only 20 acres of USDA-certified organically-grown peanuts in 2010.
That 20-acre tract of land, and every roasted, boiled, salted or crushed peanut it produced, belonged to just one Georgia farm at the forefront an expanding food market.
The sole farm leading a charge toward growing organic nuts wasn’t an industrial behemoth from the peanut-rich plains of the southwest portion of the state, but a 600-acre, family-maintained operation near the banks of the Ogeechee River in Bulloch County.
Healthy Hollow Farms, located on Old River Road near Stilson, is home to 177 acres of certified organic pastures and crop land, and was the home of Georgia’s only organic peanut crop last year. Because Georgia's climate provides ideal conditions for weeds, insect pests and plant diseases, most organic peanuts are grown only in west Texas and New Mexico.
“We have been certified organic for three years, and growing without chemicals for 14 years. It has been a trial-and-error business figuring out what to do, but we proved it can be done,” said Jimmy Hayes, who, along with his wife Connie, operates the farm. “The biggest advantage is: Organic foods don’t have the chemicals that standard-grown crops do. A lot of the chemicals in food now do not have good effects on your body.”
According to Hayes, the farm produced approximately 4,000 pounds of organic peanuts in 2010, which increased its harvest from 3,500 pounds the year before, and about 2,000 in the farm’s first year growing the organic crop – the production would have been greater if not for an illness early in the season, he said.
“We started with just three acres of organic peanuts,” he said; “went up to seven, and then had 20 this past year.”
The Hayes’ farm transitioned to a completely organic operation in 2007, meaning no chemically enhanced fertilizers or weed-killing agents are used to grow its products.
Healthy Hollow made the switch to organic, despite challenges the venture presents, in order to move away from an unhealthy standard in peanut production and break into a growing market, according to Hayes.
“There is a very strong demand for organic peanut butter, but a very short supply of organically grown peanuts in the area,” said Dr. Carroll Johnson, a research agronomist in weed science with the United States Department of Agriculture.
Johnson works at the Coastal Plain Experiment Station in Tifton.
“Early on, my research on organic weed control led me to Jimmy Hayes. Jimmy is one of the first farmers in the state who has committed the resources and time to develop an organic peanut-production-system.”
Johnson, who assists area farmers in transitioning to organic production through techniques and knowledge found via research, has worked with the Hayes’ since 2007.
“Jimmy is one of the innovative growers in the state who has the know-how, and is willing to take the time and risks to grow these organic peanuts,” he said. “I think Healthy Hollows is the model for what peanut production can be. I think the future of organic peanut production in the Southeast is taking conventional growers, and transitioning their operation to organic production.”
According to Hayes, who has sold product in Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Tennessee – he hopes a potential buyer can add Minnesota to the list later this year – the primary problem facing the farm is marketing its yield to bulk-buyers.
Due to a lack of infrastructure in the area for processing and handling organic nuts, the farm can only market its peanuts as “organically-grown,” instead of “organically grown and processed.” Peanuts have to be shelled and processed by organically-certified parties to garner the completely-organic title.
The problem affects organic growers throughout the area, said Hayes.
“Marketing is the problem,” he said. “There is an outfit in western Georgia that has to ship peanuts in from New Mexico just to make organic peanut butter. Why should we have to ship peanuts from out of state?”
“There just isn’t a lot of infrastructure. The struggle now is to have enough people producing organic peanuts to make someone want to be certified in roasting or shelling them,” said Julia Gaskin, who coordinates the Sustainable Agriculture Program for the College of Agricultural and Environmental sciences at the University of Georgia. “There is a growing interest in trying to develop systems to have more large-scale organic production, and there is more demand for organic products now.”
“I think Jimmy and Connie are real pioneers, and are making the system work,” she said. “It is exciting to see.”
The Hayes’ have a plan to remedy their issue.
“In the future, we want to do our own processing – on site,” said Connie Hayes. “That is the only way we can market as being truly organic. Hopefully that can pave the road for future growers, because they will have access to an organic sheller in the area.”
According to Jimmy Hayes, the farm needs to save about $50,000 before it can shell and roast its own peanuts. Until then, he said, the farm will continue to operate as it does now – growing organic peanuts, soy beans, vegetables and wheat to sell to variety of buyers for multiple uses.
Friday, Healthy Hollows witnessed first-hand a growing interest in the market it is helping to pioneer.
As part of a “farm tour” by the 14th annual Georgia Organics Conference – held this year in Savannah – more than 30 students, organic buyers, researchers, and farmers, both current and aspiring, trekked to the Stilson farm for a tour and information about the family-run business.
The attendees, who hail from Georgia and surrounding states, listened to the Hayes’ discuss farming techniques and specifics of Healthy Hollows for more than two hours.
The visit was highlighted by a more than one mile walk through the farm property –across a vast expanse of woodlands and under the shadows of centuries-old pine trees, where visitors could look out onto more than 100 acres of green, budding seedlings.
Jeff Harrison can be reached at (912) 489-9454