Peanut Market Slipping, But Not Goober Gathering

At national festival, all hail America's leading nut, the star of a nearly billion-dollar Alabama industry

IN Dothan, Ala., folks are nuts about peanuts.

They have good reason for their infatuation with the legume. The city of 53,000 in the southeast corner of the state is in the heart of the peanut belt: 50 percent of the United States peanut crop is grown within a 100-mile radius in each direction.

``Peanuts are our bread and butter,'' drawls retired peanut farmer Lex Tindell, who seems a bit perplexed as to why he might have to explain the goober's importance around here. He pauses, and good-naturedly asks, ``Where're you from?''

Peanuts are a nearly $1 billion industry in Alabama, the second-largest peanut-producing state after Georgia.

To honor the peanut and peanut farmers such as Mr. Tindell, Dothan each year hosts the National Peanut Festival - a fair (this year from Nov. 4 to 12) held just after the autumn peanut harvest.

For the most part it's an agricultural celebration with carnival rides, booths on food preservation and horticulture, fiddling contests, and livestock exhibitions. But since the festival revolves around the peanut, some events here just don't happen at the typical county fair.

Take the greasy pig scramble, for instance.

In an indoor stadium piled with red dirt, Miss Peanut and Little Miss Peanut, winners of the National Peanut Festival beauty pageant, pour gallons of peanut oil over about 15 porkers.

``You get the pigs as greasy as you can,'' explains one of the organizers, ``and you let the school kids loose. They chase them all over, and if they can bring one back it's theirs to raise for a year. The pigs get real squirmy. It's a real sight.''

Besides wrestling slippery swine, one of the most anticipated events is the recipe contest. Participants - mostly women and girls, though a few men enter as well - concoct their best mouth-watering cake, cookie, candy, or pie recipes, which must have as an ingredient either peanuts, peanut butter, or peanut oil.

This year there were 300 entries. Spread along several tables was a vast selection: peanut butter and jam cheesecake, peanutty granola truffles, peanut butter pineapple cake, peanut butter cornflake candy, peanut-shaped candies with melted marshmallow topping, whipped cream-drenched peanut pies, and all kinds of other assorted peanut treats.

The grand prize winner was Wanda Ammons. As cameras clicked, the Alabama woman beamed and posed proudly with the chocolate angel food peanut roll that had pleased the judges' palates.

``My husband is going to fall out,'' said Mrs. Ammons, who is the daughter of a peanut farmer and bakes with peanuts often. ``He looked at it last night, and said, `You can forget that.' ''

Ammons, whose prizes included $100, a silver tray, and a trip for two to her choice of Southeast destinations, also got to ride in a float in the peanut festival parade, along the same route as a giant cement mixer that spewed out thousands of goobers.

Started in 1943, the National Peanut Festival has expanded from a weekend fair to a 10-day event, attracting about 100,000 people, says Teresa Smallwood of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association.

And it seems the peanut needs all the promoting it can get.

Peanut consumption has declined during the last several years, due in large part to a sluggish market in peanut butter - the primary product made with peanuts, says Mitch Head, executive director of the Peanut Advisory Board in Atlanta.

The main reason peanut butter isn't being consumed as much as it used to is that the core population of peanut butter eaters - children - has gotten smaller. ``We have to look at promoting it as an adult food because that's the growing segment of the population,'' Mr. Head says.

Peanuts are also getting a bad rap because many people believe them to be high in fat, a perception the peanut industry tries to combat by promoting the nut's high nutrition value and the fact that most of the fat is unsaturated - a positive buzzword among nutritionists.

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