Luke Green, Banks, AL
|Luke Green, with newly harvested peanuts, makes peanut butter for direct markets in Atlanta and elsewhere. |
Photo by Keith Richards
Summary of Operation
Peanuts, pasture, hay and timber on 560 acres
150 head of beef cattle
Organic roasted peanuts and peanut butter
Falling peanut prices. When it became clear to Clinton Green that a family could no longer make a living on a small peanut and cattle farm, his son, Luke, decided to try organic production. With Clinton's production expertise and Luke's willingness to jump into the natural foods market with both feet, they have found a way to revitalize their farm without increasing acreage.
Adding value to a commodity. The Green family put their resources toward producing a profitable, value-added product. They not only harvest high yields of organic peanuts that regularly meet or exceed the county average, but they also have learned how to secure profitable marketing outlets that reward them for creating peanut butter and other products.
By most measurements, Clinton Green is one of the finest farmers in Pike County. With a rotation of peanuts, corn and pastured cattle on his third-generation farm, he maintained the fertility of his soil for years while producing high-quality crops. His peanut yields consistently surpassed the county average, winning him several production awards. One of his calves was named grand champion at the county steer show in 1996.
But the economic side of farming is a harsher judge. When Clinton learned that production quotas and price guarantees as part of the federal peanut program were to be eliminated by 2002, it became clear 100 acres of peanuts and 150 head of cattle weren't going to keep him in business.
Clinton's son, Luke, who moved back to the farm in the mid-1990s, had heard that organic crops were bringing higher prices. Rather than switching to raising chickens for poultry integrators like many of their neighbors had done, or giving up on farming all together, Luke convinced his father to let him grow a few acres of peanuts organically as an experiment.
Focal Point of Operation - Organic peanut production and marketing
In 1996, Luke plowed up 2 1/2 acres that had previously been in pasture and planted his first plot, using chicken litter and seaweed as organic fertilizers. By applying basic growing techniques learned from his father and with a little luck, Luke got 2,700 pounds per acre from that test plot - compared to the county average of about 2,600 pounds.
In 1997, Luke increased his organic production to nearly seven acres and beat the county average yields for the second straight year. In 1998, he raised 20 acres organically and began irrigating for the first time. By 2000 he reached his goal of raising 45 acres of organic peanuts.
Following his father's practices, Luke rotates the peanuts with Bahia grass pasture. They disc the Bahia grass in the fall, drill in winter ryegrass and spread poultry litter once a year. They cut hay or graze the grass with their beef herd for three to four years, then turn it over and plant peanuts for two to three years. Luke feels the grazing on Bahia grass helps return nutrients to the land. They used to follow the peanuts with corn, but Luke says that crop no longer offers enough benefits to make it worthwhile.
Luke applies composted broiler litter to the organic peanut land in the fall. One of their neighbors spreads it for $15 a ton. Believing that calcium is the most important factor in growing healthy peanut plants, he also adds lime at 1 to 1 1/2 tons to achieve his desired rate.
'The peanuts could use three tons of high calcium lime,' he says. 'That would really help with disease problems.' He has experimented with foliar feeding fish emulsion and seaweed, and believes three to four feedings per year would increase the health of his plants.
All of Luke's efforts to grow a quality product organically, however, didn't pay off in cash receipts. Offered just 88 cents a pound for his first organic crop of shelled peanuts, Luke realized that selling a raw product was still not going to keep the family farm in business. Aghast at the low price, Luke decided to turn his raw product into a more valuable commodity: peanut butter marketed under his new label, 'Luke's Pure Products.'
The state of Alabama doesn't have an organic certification agency, so he convinced Georgia Organics to come over and certify his land. He also had to find a local sheller willing to run his small batch of peanuts separately and get their plant certified. Then he had to figure out where to do the processing.
After weighing several options, Luke decided to build a small processing kitchen in an old building on the farm. A friend from the local health department helped him wade through the regulations before he drew up plans. Then he scouted around the countryside for used equipment and was rewarded with sinks, faucets, a water pump and a stainless steel table. He modified a locally built propane grill into a roaster.
Of all of the equipment he needed, the only piece of equipment Luke bought new was a $1,000 peanut grinder. The whole kitchen cost him less than $5,000 and can process 50,000 to 60,000 pounds of peanuts per year.
Once the kitchen was in place, Luke ran numerous test batches to fine-tune his roasting and butter-making process. He began networking with Georgia Organics members to learn how other farmers packaged and marketed their value-added products. Georgia farmers Skip Glover and Mary and Bobby Denton were a big help and helped him get shelf space at the all-organic Morningside Farmers Market in Atlanta.
'My first batch was in mason jars and it was so dry that you could hardly swallow it,' Luke recalls with a laugh. That didn't stop him from getting his product out, though. He figured the only way he could improve was to have customers taste his peanut butter. With their feedback, he knew he could perfect his roasting process and create fine-tasting Alabama grown and processed peanut butter.
Economics and Profitability
Once he figured out how to create atasty, quality product, Luke had to find a market that offered a fair price for his efforts. 'There are too many people in the middle between me and the store,' he says. 'You've got to create another job on the farm and cut some of the middle people out.'
As he started marketing, Luke made hundreds of phone calls and 'loaded up my car with peanut butter and drove all over selling it,' he says.
Since then, he expanded his markets to several independent natural food retailers. As he learned more about the organic food industry, Luke looked for other avenues. He made an agreement with Wild Oats, a natural foods grocery chain, to produce peanut butter under their private label. Although Luke enjoys the control he has with his own labeled products, he says there are benefits to producing a product for someone else's label - the costs of shipping, brokering and promotion are all borne by Wild Oats.
By creating a higher value product and cutting out some of the marketing middlemen, Luke and Sandra now make a living on 45 acres of peanuts. While this business suits them, it's a tradeoff that wouldn't work for everyone. They raise fewer acres and enjoy the farming more, but they also find themselves processing peanut butter until after midnight some nights while their son sleeps on the floor at their feet.
Organic production has reduced chemical use dramatically on the Green Farm. Stopping the use of chemicals seems to have made soil organisms flourish. Luke sees more earthworms and other organisms when he turns the soil.
'This way of farming made me realize that I'm not in control of everything around me,' he says. 'It brought me closer to nature and to understanding the cycle of life.'
The biggest problem in growing peanuts organically, Luke says, is controlling weeds. Chicken litter contributes to the problem by spreading weed seeds, especially pigweed. He uses timed cultivations with a four-row cultivator as his main form of weed control.
Luke battles another pest, thrips, with good timing. Since thrips can spread the tomato spotted wilt virus, Luke delays planting until nights are warm enough to discourage them. Thrips, which thrive in cool evenings, aren't a problem when it gets hot.
Luke's father, Clinton, believes that leaf spot will be their major nemesis in the long run. Thus far, Luke's rotations have kept the disease in check. Luke concentrates on plant health as a deterrent to all fungi and disease. He also monitors for cutworms and army worms.
Community & Quality of Life Benefits
Luke believes his pursuit of sustainable agriculture has paid off in greater ways than the obvious economic return. 'I've met some of the most genuine people on earth in sustainable agriculture,' he says, 'people who have big hearts and appreciate family.'
Luke, who recently married, says, 'Maybe the greatest benefit is that it has allowed me to live a true family life. Sandra and I can work for ourselves at home, and have our children close by. I can't think of anyone else in their thirties who is living this way.'
Luke offers a bit of advice for other farmers who are considering processing and marketing a finished product. 'Don't be afraid to ask questions. You'll find most people are willing to share their knowledge if you ask.'
Growers and processors should do their best to create the best product they are capable of. 'Quality will take you farther than anything else you do,' he says.
Finally, growers need to develop steadfastness and flexiblity. 'You also have to be stubborn and have patience' when you do something different on your farm, he says, 'because you will come up against a lot of brick walls.'
Luke would like to continue raising 45 acres of peanuts each year, increase his yields and do more processing. Meanwhile he is reinvesting most of his profits back into the business. He would like to upgrade to a bigger grinder, roaster and a better storage and cooling facility. If he can find used equipment and do most of the labor, he will only need about $30,000.
He has begun negotiating with another processor to supply roasted peanuts for private label peanut candies. As long as Luke is adding value to his peanuts by roasting them, a venture like this makes economic sense.
By shifting to organic methods, adding value to crops, and diversifying his income sources, Luke believes his farm will be thriving in a few years when others around him are gone.
Profile written by Keith Richards
For more information:
Luke, Sandra and Clinton Green
P.O. Box 6764
Banks, AL 36005