No doubt about it, the perennial peanut is a bit of an oddball crop. First, it's forage. It'll never make peanut butter or ballpark peanuts.
And it's one of those plants that got here by mistake, a freak of sorts. The Florigraze variety, now grown in the Southern Coastal Plain, developed from a couple of rhizomes sent from Brazil to Florida in a test of germplasm shipping containers. Rather than destroy the rhizomes, University of Florida researchers kept them around.
A few years later, Gordon Prine, a Florida researcher investigating the perennial peanut, stumbled across a little patch of these rhizomes.
"I figure one or two had fallen down when we planted test plots," says Prine. "It looked better than the others. It was a little faster to establish. Over time, I created a cultivar. Then it became the main perennial peanut variety we grow."
Prine's initial work with it took place nearly 40 years ago. It's now grown on about 20,000 acres, with probably three-fourths of that in Florida. The Perennial Peanut Producers Association has grown to an all-time high of 78 members located from Florida to Texas.
The South needs its own high-quality forage. "We desperately need a warm-season forage legume," says Don Ball, Alabama extension forage specialist.
At first look, the perennial peanut seems just right for the Coastal Plain. As a tropical plant, it loves hot weather. It's comparable to alfalfa in feed value, with slightly more energy and usually a little less protein. Horses do well on perennial peanut hay, and the horse business is booming, especially in Florida. Dairy cows also thrive on it.
Perennial peanut hay sells for about $200 a ton, picked up at the farm, or about $5 per 50-lb bale, says Chuck Paarlberg. He has grown it since 1987 at Lee, FL, and now has more than 300 acres of it.
"Alfalfa shipped in from out West has $60-70/ton shipping costs," says Paarlberg, former president of the producers association. "By the time alfalfa gets here, it's quite stemmy and the leaves are green powder. The peanut stem is 1/16" in diameter, and it maintains leaves well."
Clay Olson, Taylor County, FL, extension director, reports steady increases in perennial peanut plantings in his area.
"It's picking up. The legume hay market in Florida is nearly a $200 million business. There's money to be made in it," he says.
Why, then, hasn't perennial peanut acreage taken off?
Three reasons, Ball says. The crop must be sprigged from rhizomes and can't be planted as seed. It isn't winterhardy enough to survive very far north. And it's slow to establish; there's usually no production until the second or third year after sprigging.
"I hate to be negative about it because I like the perennial peanut's forage quality and long-term persistence. But at present the enthusiasm for it in Alabama is not high, for those three reasons," Ball says. The crop took another hit recently when 54-year-old Tito French, the University of Florida extension specialist and researcher who had taken it on as a personal crusade, died of a heart attack.
Paarlberg believes acreage will continue to slowly increase.
"With low commodity prices on other crops, there's interest in the perennial peanut, even though it's slow to get people up to speed. Demand is high. One of the problems is getting a consistent supply to the horse farms year-round," he says.
"I advise farmers to figure what acreage they'd ultimately like and plant 1/20 of that," says Prine. "Then later they can use that original planting to get rhizomes for sprigging as they increase acres. It's expensive to plant. It can cost $250/acre for a turnkey operation."