february 2011

The Blogging Farmer

Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture and Farming


Behold The Lowly Peanut

‘When it comes to food, peanut butter and candies like peanut brittle are only the beginning.’

The peanut is possibly one of the most misunderstood vegetables cultivated.

It's neither a pea nor a nut—but it's a lot closer to being the former. A member of the bean family (which includes peas), the peanut is often disparaged and the butt of many jokes. "Living on peanut butter sandwiches" is often associated with extreme poverty (after all, commercial peanut butter is cheap, though better, organic brands will cost you a buck or two more). But the fact is (at least for those of us who don't suffer from potentially lethal peanut allergies), peanuts represent an amazing source of nutrition—and more.

washingtonA popular misconception is that 19th-Century African-American scientist George Washington Carver invented the peanut. He didn't, although he did find many interesting uses for it. Peanuts go back a long way in agricultural history—over 7,600 years, in fact. It was the indigenous peoples of Peru (not the Incas nor even the Moche—this was several millennia before those peoples emerged) who started cultivating the early ancestor of the modern peanut, which apparently is a hybrid of a couple of herbaceous wild beans (which is known as the Faboidae family). Cultivation of peanuts spread northward into Mexico, where early Spanish conquistadores found them being peddled on the streets of Tenochtitlan (present-day Mexico City).

The rest, as they say, is history...

Peanut cultivation is normally associated with the American South, where it has been called the "goober" among other unflattering names. However, the U.S. produces only a small fraction of the world's peanuts. The largest producer by far is (ready for this?) China, where the peanut harvest runs over 14 million metric tons a year. India is a distant second, at just over six million tons, while the USA comes in third at around 2.3 million tons.

‘Peanuts,’ The Four Seasons. The original recording by Philadelphia’s Little Joe & The Thrillers on the OKeh label was a #23 single, getting a big boost on the sales charts from the group’s exposure on the Philly-based American Bandstand show. The Four Seasons released it as the B side of “Stay,” their 1963 Vee Jay single. In 1966, recording as The Wonder Who, the Seasons released it as the A side of a single backed by “My Sugar.”

Here's something else I'll bet not many people know: there are a half-dozen types of peanut grown around the world, and dozens more cultivars within these groupings. Most of the peanuts grown in the U.S. today are of the Spanish type. These seeds tend to be smaller, but have higher oil content. Over the past 70 years however, more farmers in the South have been turning to the "Runners," which taste and roast up better. Virginia peanuts are also growing in popularity because of the large seed.

When it comes to food, peanut butter and candies like peanut brittle are only the beginning. Peanuts are a popular ingredient in Chinese and South Asian cuisine; they're the main ingredient in the popular dish known as pad thai (if you've never tried this concoction, you've missed on one of Thailand's major contributions to the world). Another unique savory dish is known as "African peanut soup," a hearty stew made with peanut butter, chicken, onions, tomatoes and various spices.

Mainly however, peanuts are a nutritional powerhouse, providing more "bang for the buck" than many other foods. Chock-full of vitamin E various minerals and healthy unsaturated fats, they are also 25% protein—the highest of any member of the bean family.


Behold the Lowly Peanut, Part II

‘The peanut has a potentially huge role to play in agriculture above and beyond that of a direct food source.’

Back in the 19th century when the "infernal combustion engine" was first invented, there were a few far-sighted individuals, even then, who knew that the world's supply of petroleum wasn't going to last forever.

rudolfOne of those visionaries was a fellow named Rudolf Diesel. You may have a car or truck equipped with one of his engine designs, though it's been greatly refined and improved since it was invented in 1892. Diesel's engine was originally designed to run on coal dust, not peanut oil—but as it turned out, peanut oil worked quite well.

It still does, but this is only one of the industrial uses of the lowly peanut. The peanut has a potentially huge role to play in agriculture above and beyond that of a direct food source. For example, the tops of a peanut make excellent hay, while the protein cake residue left over from processing the oil itself can be alternatives to commercial animal feed as well as petroleum-based fertilizers.

It goes without saying that low-grade peanut oil is potentially useful as a fuel for a wide range of farm machinery. However, there are a lot of commercial products that the peanut finds its way into that gets used on the farm. The use of peanut oil in paint and varnish is a less-toxic alternative to turpentine. If you raise horses, that oil makes for a fine leather dressing as well.

Out in the field, pest control with peanut oil is starting to catch on. It turns out that ants and other insect pests are repelled by it.

‘Peanut Butter,’ The Marathons (aka The Vibrations, 1961)

Some of the more unusual ways in which peanuts are used include furniture and various types of glue—and ladies may find this substance in a number of common cosmetics as well. Green-minded builders may be interested to know that peanut products are starting to find uses in construction materials, including wallboard, abrasives, plastic fixtures and other handy items.

In fact, there is little that peanuts can't be used for. As the world's petroleum supplies continue to dwindle—affecting the many, many products containing oil—farmers along America's Sun Belt may be called on to increase their production in order to fill the void.

“Behold the Lowly Peanut,” Parts 1 and 2 were published on January 5 and January 11, respectively, at Alex Tiller’s Blog on Agriculture and Farming

tillerHello, and thanks for checking out my blog.  My name is Alex Tiller and I grew up in rural Ohio (Clark County) where my family still owns farmland (corn and beans). I am a member of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers and am also an agribusiness author/blogger. I write about commercial farming, family farms, organic food production, sustainable agriculture, the local food movement, alternative renewable energy, hydroponics, agribusiness, farm entrepreneurship, and farm economics and farm policy. I visit lots of farms in different areas of the country (sometimes the world) that grow all kinds of different crops and share what I learn with you through this blog. You can contact me via email by clicking here: Email Alex at http://blog.alextiller.com/contact

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