By David Bearinger
Spin the globe. An invisible thread connects the highlands of Bolivia and Peru to West Africa, then to India, Southeast Asia, Europe, and finally to Virginia, spreading out again from Virginia, and around the world.
The invisible thread is peanuts.
Travel east from Petersburg and you enter Surry and Sussex counties, Isle of Wight, Southampton, and the City of Suffolk. This is the region known as Western Tidewater, with miles of open fields and forested land, laced with rivers draining into North Carolina’s Chowan Basin.
This is peanut country.
Other crops are grown here—cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat, even “boutique” crops like shitake mushrooms; but the peanut, especially the large, high-value “Virginia peanut,” is king.
The story of peanuts is one of the great Virginia stories, and over the past three years, Virginia Foundation for the Humanities (VFH) has awarded a series of grants to support the development of a documentary film exploring this history.
Since the late nineteenth century, peanuts have shaped every part of life in Western Tidewater, especially in Suffolk, which has been the center of peanut processing and marketing since the 1880s, and Southampton County, which is the heart of peanut farming in Virginia, even today.
Peanuts probably came to Virginia from Africa, aboard slave ships, but they originated in South America and eventually made their way to Asia and to Europe—and to West Africa, carried by early European explorers.
They thrive in the sandy-loam soils of this region. And in fact, the word “peanut” is a misnomer, because the plant is actually a legume. After pollination, the plants send out “pegs” that burrow into the ground where the seeds (the peanuts) develop.
The first commercial peanuts were planted in Virginia in 1842, in Sussex County. They were initially cultivated as animal fodder and as a source of nourishment for the poor and enslaved. Peanuts didn’t become a major economic force until after the Civil War, but by the early 1880s, Virginia was already supplying most of the northern markets.
Over the next forty years, Virginia quickly became the nation’s leading producer. In 1902, fourteen of the twenty peanut factories operating in the United States were in Western Tidewater; and Suffolk, which was then served by six railroad companies, had become the center of peanut marketing and distribution worldwide.
Why peanuts? In the early 1900s, the boll weevil destroyed much of the South’s cotton crop. Working at Tuskeegee Institute in Alabama, George Washington Carver was inspired by concern for the well-being of southern sharecroppers, many of them former slaves. His research discovered more than 300 uses for the peanut plant, and his work transformed the economy of eastern Virginia, and the state as a whole.
Carver’s work is internationally known. But the history of peanuts is also filled with surprising and little-known stories. In the late 1890s, Benjamin Hicks, an African American farmer from Southampton County, invented a gasoline-powered machine for stemming and cleaning peanuts. He successfully patented the device but had to withstand a lawsuit from one of the most powerful farm-equipment companies of the day.
Hicks won in court in 1901, and the picker he invented helped modernize peanut farming.
In 1913, a first-generation Italian immigrant named Amedeo Obici came to Suffolk. He was thirty-six years old and had started selling peanuts on the streets of New York City when he was eleven. He founded Planters Nut and Chocolate Company, later Planters Peanuts; created one of the most iconic symbols in American business history—“Mr. Peanut”; and established a charitable foundation out of the vast wealth that came to him, from selling peanuts.
By the end of World War II, Virginia was no longer the leading U.S. peanut producer. The end of government support and allotment programs in 2002 forced many smaller farmers including most black peanut farmers out of business.
Today, peanuts are still a force in Western Tidewater, still the most reliably profitable crop even for smaller-scale producers. But China and Brazil, not Virginia, are now the dominant players in the global peanut market. Profit margins are thin and getting thinner, and just one bad growing season can put even a solid, family-run farm business on the ropes.
The VFH-funded documentary film will tell the story of peanuts from the perspectives of those who know peanut farming, processing, and marketing first-hand. People like Rex and Bob Alphin, farmers in Isle of Wight County; Sue Woodward, a historian with the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society; Lynda Updike, a Southampton County farmer and president of the Southampton County Historical Society; and many others.
A Steering Committee led by the historian Felice Hancock is working closely in collaboration with filmmaker Amy Broad to shape the project, and the film is intended for national broadcast and widespread local use, with an estimated release date of summer 2016.
Telling Virginia’s stories is the heart of our work. The story of peanuts is in one respect a quintessential local story, the story of life and work in one particular region of the state. But it also connects Virginia to the world.