OUT in the field, son Meredith (Mert) Felts Jr. drives his huge, air-conditioned Ford tractor through rows of peanuts. Stopping in the middle of a row, he kneels and embraces a plant. He is spot-checking the leaves for fungus or disease. But his tender gesture reflects the way many here in southeastern Virginia feel about peanuts. For more than a century, peanuts have been a staple of the economy in this eight-county region south of the James River. On the pale, sandy fields edged with marshes and twisting creeks, some 4,000 farmers grow the groundnut (the peanut's other name) as their major cash crop.
Thousands of other families depend on peanut shellers, processors and wholesalers, crushers and blanchers, warehousers, retailers, shippers, and farm machinery dealers. In this largely rural region, the business of growing and processing peanuts is worth between $400 million and $500 million a year.
Towns here hold peanut festivals, and restaurants concoct peanut pies and soups. The tiny town of Wakefield proclaims itself the Peanut Capital of the World.
In Southampton County, an agricultural extension agent boasts that his is the largest peanut-producing county in the United States. In Suffolk, the call letters of Radio WLPM stand for World's Largest Peanut Market.
So what that 85 percent of the world's peanuts are grown in Asia and Africa and that 25 counties in Georgia harvested more acres and pounds of peanuts than Southampton County last year!
The hoopla and hyperbole reflect the importance of the crop to the region's families.
None feel that more than the farmers. During a decade of struggle (and in many cases failure) of family farms nationwide, the number of peanut farms in southeastern Virginia - virtually all family operations - has remained constant, stabilized by a crop that most farmers here have grown for generations.
Five decades ago, Meredith Felts Sr. married Louise Taylor, the girl on the adjoining peanut farm. The 1,000 acres that make up Felts Peanut Farm today is a combination of their family lands.
``Except for some time he spent in the merchant marine, he's always been on the farm,'' Mert says of his father.
``Except for the time I spent at college, I've always been here.''
On fields that are spread out around five miles of woodland and swamp, Mert rotates peanuts, corn, soybeans, and wheat. This year, with prices high because of the drought that has devastated many midwestern farmers, all the crops will sell well. But year in and year out, peanuts keep the family in business.
An exuberant man with a long drawl and farmer's tan, Mert works on shares with his father, furnishing labor and equipment in return for land and advice.
The technology of peanut farming has become mostly a matter of manipulating giant machinery since Mert's great uncle plowed this land with a mule nearly a century ago.
But the art of growing peanuts is still based on knowledge gleaned, season after season, from watching weather, checking the crops for deficiencies, and learn ing by experience when to plant and when to harvest.
``Both my grandparents and my father were good teachers,'' says Mert.
His father, a supervisor of Southampton County, is supposedly retired from farming, but ``if he's got a free moment, he's always around to help me.''
The stability of peanut farming derives in large part from a federal program begun in the 1930s, limiting production and imports and setting price floors. But no government program can take all the risk out of farming.
Last year an early frost ruined much of Virginia's peanut crop - and with hundreds of thousands of dollars invested in machinery, farmers can ill afford any loss. The Feltses are among a number of families here experimenting with small-scale ventures to diversify their farming operations.
For 18 years, Meredith and Louise ran a small farm-supply business in addition to growing crops.
``When we started out, we just bought peanuts in the fall. Then we started shelling. Then we started selling fertilizers and things,'' recalls Louise, making a lunch of bean soup and cornbread for her husband in a kitchen with a Peanuts for Lovers sticker on the refrigerator.
The Feltses are also among the 160 farmers who belong to a shelling cooperative, the Virginia-Carolina Peanut Farmers Cooperative, that gives farmers a share of middleman profits.
Three years ago Mr. Felts and son Mert, who also works an evening a week as a scientific glass blower in Norfolk, started selling roasted peanuts directly from the farm.
Like most area farmers, the Feltses specialize in Virginia-type peanuts, larger and some say tastier than the runner peanuts grown farther south. Virginia nuts are generally used whole, instead of being crushed for peanut butter and candies.
Big profits in processing and marketing are still going to big corporations - Golden, Planters, Birdsong, and the like. But for the Feltses, even a little success in a sideline operation means a little more security on the farm.
The farm is not only a business but a way of life. Both Meredith's mother and Louise's mother still live in their own homes on the farm, assisted by family members who work within sight.
Mert's wife, Jean, owns a dress shop in Wakefield, but their children Meredith (Trippie), 15, Ellyn, 12, and Taylor, 7, spend their summers pulling weeds and rogue corn from the peanuts. ``I like being out in the sun and working,'' says Trippie, standing in the big trailer and spreading peanuts with a shovel during harvest time. Farming is ``hard work, but you're your own boss.''
The family is tied not only to the fields that profit them, but to the places of spiritual and ecological value. Down at an old mill pond, where water runs gently over a beaver dam and trees shine double in dark water, Mert pauses while driving between his fields to point out the birds, frogs, and snakes that live among the vines.
``It's really pretty down here when the lily pads get into bloom and the pink and white are together,'' he says.
Beyond the swamp is the Millfield Baptist Church, a small, white frame building surrounded on four sides by the Feltses' land. The family and several dozen cousins are among the 100 or so members who attend regularly.
``You can live in a community so long you feel like everyone's related to you,'' says Mert, trying to count the number of his cousins.
``You have to set your priorities for what is most important. Certainly our return on the dollar is not as great as in some other businesses,'' comments Meredith, helping Trippie replace a fan belt on the lawn tractor.
``On the other hand, we are on the land. It's like anything you're tied to. You want to be a part of it.''
This life is not lucrative, but it is rich.
A couple of `nutty' favorites
THROUGHOUT the southeastern part of Virginia, Montese Phillips, proprietor of the restaurant Phillips and Company in Franklin, is famous for her peanut butter pie.
``She won't give out her recipe to just anyone,'' says Louise Felts, ``but if you can get it, I'd love to see it.''
Mrs. Phillips kindly agreed to share her recipe:
Peanut Butter Pie 3/4 cup sifted confectioners' sugar 1/3 cup crunchy peanut butter Pastry shell 2/3 cup sugar 1/4 cup cornstarch 1 tablespoon flour 1/2 teaspoon salt 3 egg yolks 3 cups milk 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla 2 tablespoons melted butter 3 egg whites at room temperature 1/3 cup sugar 1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
Mix confectioners' sugar and peanut butter with fingertips to form fine crumbs; set aside.
Place pastry shell on upper middle rack in oven. Brown pastry at 450 degrees for 8 minutes or until golden brown. Cool pastry shell. Fill with peanut butter crumbs, saving about 2 tablespoons to sprinkle over meringue before browning.
For filling, mix dry ingredients in top of double boiler, giving a brisk stir with wire whisk. Add milk. Cook over boiling water until mixture begins to thicken, stirring often. Add a little of mixture to slightly beaten egg yolks. Return to mixture. Continue cooking until thick. Add vanilla and butter.
Cook mixture over ice. Whisk while cooking to prevent crusting. Pour cooled filling on top of crumbs. Beat egg whites until they begin to froth. Add cream of tartar; mix. Add sugar, 1 tablespoon at a time, beating continuously.
When all the sugar has been added, beat at high speed until meringue is thick. Top pie with meringue.
Bake on lower rack of oven five minutes at 400 degrees or until golden.
Carol Longmire of Isle of Wight County grew up on a peanut farm and uses peanuts in everything from pastas to stir-fries.
Here is one of her favorites. Peanut Soup 1 medium onion, chopped 2 celery sticks, chopped 1/4 cup butter 3 tablespoons flour 2 quarts chicken broth 2 cups creamy peanut butter 1 3/4 cup light cream 5 oz. peanuts, chopped
Saut'e onion and celery in butter until tender, but not brown. Stir in flour until well blended. Add chicken broth, stirring continuously. Bring to a boil. Remove from heat and rub through a sieve.
Add peanut butter and light cream, stirring to blend thoroughly. Return to low heat, but do not boil.
Serve garnished with chopped peanuts.