Big peanuts are big business

In recent years, Bailey, Sugg, Titan, Sullivan, and Wynne have brought millions of dollars into the commonwealth.

These aren’t companies or entrepreneurs or even scientists. They are peanuts.

Extension specialist Maria Balota works with peanut producers to develop the best varieties suitable to the commonwealth’s climate.

Extension specialist Maria Balota works with peanut producers to develop the best varieties suitable to the commonwealth’s climate.

Researchers from Virginia Tech, working in conjunction with partners and peanut breeders in North and South Carolina, have developed and tested a constant stream of new Virginia peanut cultivars over the last 40 years that are as profitable as they are hearty.

“Farmers we work with not only benefit from the work we do, but also help guide our research in terms of telling us what characteristics they would like to see in new Virginia peanut strains,” said Maria Balota, a professor of plant pathology, physiology, and weed science who is also an Extension specialist.

The Peanut Variety and Quality Evaluation Program is the only publicly funded program of its kind in the world that focuses solely on peanuts.

The big, gourmet Virginia peanuts are big business in the region. In the banner year of 2012, they had a production value of $210 million in Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

Two varieties with extra-large pods that Balota’s group has grown — Bailey and Sugg — have added more than $16 million in value to the crops.

peanutsNew cultivars are always in the pipeline to help farmers meet the needs of their customers and to develop strains that are disease-resistant.

“This is a great way to have acceptable varieties released because they have been thoroughly tested under real-world conditions,” said Dell Cotton, executive secretary of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association.

Beyond the laboratory, Balota spends hours meeting with farmers, shellers, and wholesalers to find out what the market is interested in so she can help provide the most profitable peanut.

“We get opinions from everyone in the peanut industry about what variety should be released and what is needed at the moment,” she said.

She is currently working on developing peanuts that are low in linoleic acid, which will help decrease the risk that the peanuts will turn rancid during shipping and storage.

Balota holds field days so that peanut producers can visit her test plots to see what is working for her and how they can incorporate her findings into their peanut operations.

“It’s a very symbiotic relationship that benefits everyone and allows Virginia gourmet peanuts to continue to be the very best that you can find,” Balota said.

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