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'Peanut proud' farm town struggles with tainted image

Blakely, Ga., was a quiet community until the salmonella scare hit home.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 19, 2009

Mixed images: Blakely is primarily a Georgia farm community where Tyler Hampton can get pointers on his hogs from judge Brent Jennings at the Early County Market Hog Show.

Patrik Jonsson/The Christian Science Monitor

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Blakely, Ga.

Dressed in spotless Wranglers, pint-sized cowboy boots, and pearl-buttoned farm shirts, the boys and girls of Blakely, Ga., could hardly look happier as they brush down their hogs in hopes of a blue ribbon.

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But a behind-the-scenes glimpse at the Early County Market Hog Show shows all is not well here.

Blakely is America's peanut capital, the seat of the biggest peanut-growing county in the United States and "peanut proud," as the motto goes. It's also home to the now-infamous Peanut Corp. of America plant that allegedly sold salmonella-laced products and launched a deadly food-safety scandal.

Cafe owner Fred Large say it's unfair that a rogue corporate operator who bought much of his peanut stock from China and Argentina should have "drug this town through the mud."

As he helps his son Caleb prep a hefty sow for the show, middle school teacher Harriss Brown worries that his community – which should be exemplified by the innocent toil of young farmers, he says – is getting a reputation as "a town full of killers."

But it's clear amid the hushed barn whispers that the scandal has also forced a communitywide reevaluation of a go-along-to-get-along working culture that pervaded the low-slung Peanut Corp. of America (PCA) plant here. The result now threatens not only a town's sense of identity, but the future of the humble peanut itself.

Long-term damage

"I don't think all the damage can be undone," says Brian Cresswell, a University of Georgia extension specialist who works two buildings down from the shuttered PCA plant. "A lot of those people who are scared about peanut butter will never come back. This has really brought to light how big the struggle is going to be."

With a population of about 5,300, Blakely had, by the grace of the peanut, become a success story here in the struggling agricultural plains of the South. Median household income in Blakely is just over $20,000, less than half the national average. But downtown revitalization programs, an eight-foot monument topped by a granite peanut, and flags with the motto "peanut proud" give the town's massive and clean courthouse square an imposing confidence, evidence of an agrarian success story with a soundtrack of blanching combines in the background.

Farmers, teachers, and plant workers labored in international anonymity. When Mr. Brown traveled overseas, no one had ever heard of his hometown.

"And that's how people here like it," notes Mr. Cresswell, the extension agent.

Anonymity now shattered, the effects of the peanut scandal could be catastrophic, says peanut farmer Denise Hattaway, desperately juggling numbers in a cramped barn office, overseen by a dusty picture of a brown Labrador retriever in full point. The fall of the peanut here "would be like closing GM in Detroit," she says.

After years of drought and low prices on cotton and soybeans, peanuts in many ways had become Blakely's savior, making up about half of total revenues in the county. With prices at a record $500 a ton last year, Georgia farmers grew 2.33 billion pounds – a 44 percent increase from the year before. Proceeds boosted Blakely's fortunes.

Today, the massive peanut product recall means there are no sales contracts at all, and the best price farmers can hope for is the government-mandated price of $355 per ton. Set against a tough national economy, the 50 jobs lost at the PCA plant and another 100 recently lost at the local paper mill, the peanut's pounded reputation has now become inextricable from Blakely's self-image.

"When farmers have a good year, the whole town and county has a good year, and when they don't, the rest of the town don't," says Cresswell. "Our microeconomy inside the whole macroeconomy was pretty good until this happened."