'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

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    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.
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    It's also home to the Peanut Corp. of America facility that officials have tied to an outbreak of salmonella.
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    Preparing to plow: Like many other peanut farmers, Brandon White has no sales contracts. But he says he's 'going on as usual.'
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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.

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.

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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."

For one, fertilization plans for the spring planting are in disarray as farmers reconfigure their schedules by each day's news. Never mind profit at this point, farmers say. With prices on peanuts –the No. 1 cash crop – down by more than 30 percent, debt service becomes the only goal.

"Nobody is excited about putting anything in the ground right now," says Deede Poole, a crop insurance agent.

In many ways, as Smitty's Cafe waitress Tammie McDaniels says, "it's just not fair that an awesome little town like this is getting such a bad name."

Indeed, PCA used few Georgia peanuts. In fact, one lab worker testified to Congress that the original contamination may have come from organic peanuts shipped in from China. The other plants here, such as Birdsong and Golden Peanut, are known as quality operators, shipping local product to some of the biggest brand names on grocery store shelves.

The salmonella case is likely to lead to potentially dramatic changes at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is charged with ensuring America's food safety.

Self-regulation didn't work

To many, the case proves that the self-policing regulatory environment – in which major food companies protect their own brands by vigilance at the plant level – is inadequate. Today, a majority of food production is outsourced to independent operations like PCA, which provided peanut paste and other products to more than 1,700 different food items.

"The FDA now has to take a far more active and aggressive role in the process than it has had to historically, because brand-name food companies no longer own as much of the means of production as they once did," says Gene Grabowski, who has handled several recent salmonella outbreaks as a corporate crisis manager at Levick Strategic Communications in Washington.

But regulatory reform and possible criminal charges for executives are small comfort for Blakely residents like Mr. Brown, the middle school teacher, who is deeply bothered by what might be called cultural culpability of residents. Like many here, he personally knew and liked Sammy Lightsey, the plant manager who refused to answer congressional inquiries after being subpoenaed to House hearings last week.

"Down here, in this culture, we're taught to do what the boss tells you to do," says another teacher, who didn't want to give his name. Former plant worker Brandon White called the PCA plant "a nasty place where people got too comfortable and just didn't care."

A bill in the Georgia legislature will attempt to break that "culture of silence," as rural sociologist Sandy Rikoon calls it, by giving more power to local health officials to instigate inspections on the basis of local scuttlebutt.

"Just for workers, you face so much risk by reporting, especially if they end up, like in this case, closing the plant down," says Dr. Rikoon, a professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia. "To some degree, what happens is stuff becomes routine. A little bit of dirt here, well, it's always been that way. After a while, you don't think it's a big deal."

Other recent food-contamination cases, like the evidence of salmonella from a California spinach field in 2007, indicate that consumers tend to return, often in force, to affected products once a culprit has been found. The plight of Blakely, however, is perhaps best expressed by a local hardware-store owner who answers questions from a reporter with determined, jaw-set silence.

"Frankly, for the peanut industry, this will be a speed bump," says Mr. Grabowski. "But for the town of Blakely, this is going to be a blow that'll take a long time from which to recover."

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