THIS time of year is south Georgia's time to shine: It's peanut harvest. The fields and roads are always busy as farmers bring in their most important and profitable crop. But the signs are all wrong this year. The blue and red wagons and semi-trailer trucks full of peanuts are few. The Gold Kist cooperative right outside Arlington seems to be running at three-quarters speed. Even the cheery smile and friendly handshake of Mike Newberry can't hide the disappointment of a major drought in the peanut belt.
``The effect is so far-reaching,'' says Mr. Newberry, once he's climbed into his pickup truck. ``It's not just the farmers. There's the small towns. It's so rough on the business people.''
The federal government estimates peanut yields in Georgia will fall below the 1980 drought year, which was a major disaster. This state is the nation's leading peanut producer. Georgia, southeastern Alabama, and northern Florida raise two-thirds of the nation's crop. Newberry is one of the fortunate farmers. His peanuts are irrigated and have escaped the drought. His neighbors aren't so fortunate.
``Mister Gerald!'' Newberry calls out as he drives his pickup into a peanut field. Gerald Fincher, a tall, lean man whose red-and-white farm cap shades a deeply creased face, confronts a dilemma. Should he harvest now and get a drought-shortened yield? Or should he wait and hope his young peanuts mature before they're killed by a freeze?
The two men walk to dry spots and wet spots in the field. They pick off peanuts from the low bushes and crack the shells to see how many will ``make.'' ``You've got some peanuts here,'' says Newberry, who suggests harvesting now.
``I would say time is running out,'' agrees Mr. Fincher. He'll wait for the advice of his crop insurance agent before making a final decision.
Federal crop insurance is a controversial idea in Washington, D.C. Many in Congress want to eliminate it because it has never proven popular in the countryside. But many farmers in south Georgia signed up for the first time this year because they worried about damage from a peanut pest. Ironically, the virus didn't affect much acreage this year, but the insurance will keep many farmers, including Fincher, from big financial losses.
Newberry is a short, squat man in his 30s, with thinning hair that's prematurely gray. His bright salmon-colored knit shirt and white tennis shoes don't exactly fit the part of a farmer. But he does drive a well-used four-wheel-drive pickup and carries a .22-gauge rifle on the front seat for ``snakes and whatever little varmints come along.''
As Newberry drives to his farm, the landscape changes from earth red to sandy tan. Sandy soil is better for peanut-growing, he says, and the clay-based Tifton sandy loam common on his farm is the best.
At one of his fields, three tractors pull large combines that pick up and separate the peanuts from the chaff. They dump their harvest into blue wagons periodically. Newberry's father, Ike - apparently a man of few words - helps his son hitch up two loaded wagons for the sheller in town.
The dirt road and the heavy wagons make the ride to Arlington slow and bumpy. Normally during peanut harvest, the Arlington Oil Mills would be jammed with wagons and semi-trailer trucks waiting to unload. But the drought has cut traffic, and Newberry is almost immediately served. Five women grade each of his loads, testing a random sample of peanuts for moisture content, debris, and damaged and undersized kernels.
Newberry chats easily with the regular inspectors, but the chief inspector is silent and aloof. ``The graders don't want to know who the farmers are,'' Mike says. It might bias their results.
Once graded, the peanuts are automatically shelled and sorted and then tested for a mold that often creates aflatoxin - a suspected carcinogen. This year's dry weather has caused a lot of mold, says Wonzie Merritt, shelling plant supervisor, causing bags of peanuts to pile up in his warehouse as they are tested and retested. If a load fails three times, the peanuts must be ground up and cannot be used for human consumption.
Of those that do get processed, half are used for peanut butter, nearly a third go for packaged nuts, and peanut candy takes another fifth.
Peanuts are not a big item in the Newberry household, says Newberry's wife, Sherri. Occasionally, she'll make peanut-butter pie - a recipe from her mother-in-law. (See recipe.)
Like a growing number of farm wives, she works off of the farm. Mrs. Newberry teaches 10th-grade English in Edison, several miles away. She spent most of her childhood in Atlanta, and is finishing up a master's degree in education. Although both her parents grew up on a farm, she felt no tie to the land.
They have no children. But ``we built a house with three bedrooms and we don't expect to have guests all our lives,'' Newberry says.
``I want [my children] to be whatever makes them happy and independent,'' Mrs. Newberry says. ``I wouldn't want my child to feel compelled to live on a farm because his father does.''
As the farm family is changing, so is the farm. It is getting bigger, more technological, and more like a business. In the 1940s, 10 families lived off the land that Newberry and his father now farm. Their operation also supports three others, but they are full-time workers, not owners.
``The corporate farm will never take over,'' Newberry says. ``But the family farm will get larger. It will look more like the corporate structure.''
The evolution may occur more slowly in south Georgia than in other parts of the country. The small and mid-sized towns that are drying up in the Midwest appear more vibrant here, more stable.
``Peanuts,'' Newberry says. ``We can make money growing peanuts.'' At least, those farmers fortunate enough to own the government quotas to grow domestic peanuts can turn consistent profits. Peanuts can stabilize an area in other ways, too.
A few years ago, Newberry recalls, the county sheriff observed that the county's crime rate drops to virtually zero during peanut harvest. ``Everybody's busy!'' Newberry says. ``Ever since he told me that I have found that amazing.... I thought that was an interesting tangent on harvest time in south Georgia.''