Monday, June 7, 2010

Virginia Peanuts Planted in May

Virginia's peanut belt has clearly defined boundaries. Peanut crops demand sandy soil because the ground must be loose enough to allow the pegs to push down a few inches into the dirt. West of Dinwiddie, east of Suffolk and north of the James River, the ground isn't suitable. The peanuts are planted in early May, and about a month later the shin-high, oval-leafed plant blooms. The plant's delicate, yellow flowers send stems, or "pegs," into the soil below. From each of the 40 or so pegs, a peanut grows underground.

Peanut plants are more sensitive than mone might think. They are susceptible to disease and fungus, and the dewy mornings and humid summer days so common in southern Virginia are the perfect petri dish for organisms that can ruin a crop.

Come September, after a few months of meticulous care, the peanuts are harvested. Peanut farmers use a "digger" to do the job. It turns the entire plant - leaves, pegs and peanuts - upside down. Rather than immediately whisking away athe peanuts for processing, howver, farmers do a curious thing: They leave them in the field to dry. The peanuts themselves consist mostly of water, and allowing them to dry in the field for a week reduces the moisture content and gets them ready to be shelled and processed.

Virginia's weather is actually a mixed blessing. While the weather fosters peanut-destroying fungi and bacteria, it is also what makes Virginia peanuts stand out from those - even of the same type - that are cultivated in more southerly locations. They dry naturally for seven days, and Virginia's climate is one of the reasons that our peanuts are some of the best in the world. These peanuts are cured. Down south they have hotter weather, which dries the peanuts out quicky and changes the complex of the oil. Our 60-,70-, 80-degree days cure them a lot slower and keep the good flavor in there.

Once the peanuts have been collected from the field and had their stems removed by a picker, they are inspected by regulators and moved to the tanks, where they await their turn in the adjacent "sheller." For all but in-the-shell peanuts, the hulls ust be removed and the peanuts separated accoding to size. The sheller highly mechanized series of instruments that remove the kernels from their shells in rotating drums. The peanuts pass over a series of screens, computerized air jets and gravity separators an emerge whole, clean and ready to be trucked away.

Because of their large kernels an superior taste, Virginia Peanuts have acquired the reputation of being the "Cadillac" of peanuts. Virginia peanuts are valued by consumers for their large size, for their outstanding flavor and pleasing crunchy texture.

After nearly 170 years, Virginia farmers still grow some of the world's best (and biggest) peanuts, and state processors still put the salty, crunchy morsels on tables across America.

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