By Stephanie Schupska
University of Georgia
A panel of 300 European consumers chose U.S.-grown peanuts over peanuts from Argentina and China, according to a United States Department of Agriculture study.
“The study is interesting because we’ve always heard that within the U.S. and across the world, consumers prefer the taste of U.S. peanuts, particularly the peanut produced in the Southeast,” said John Beasley, a peanut agronomist with the University of Georgia Extension Service. “We pride ourselves on taste in the South.”
European tasters from London, Berlin and Amsterdam identified about 70 percent of the Chinese samples and 40 percent of Argentine samples as problematic, said Timothy H. Sanders, who led the European peanut consumer research study.
Zero U.S. lots posed problems.
In a similar blind taste test conducted in the U.S., “hands down, testers preferred U.S. peanuts,” Sanders said.
The tasting part of the European test was finished in 2004, and the study’s findings were released in August 2005. A future taste test trip to Europe may be in the works, said Sanders, a USDA Agricultural Research Service leader based in Raleigh, N.C.
“The reason we’re presenting this data in Europe is to assure international buyers that although U.S. peanuts come at a premium price, they also come as a premium product,” he said.
U.S. growers produced about 2.05 million tons of peanuts during the 2003-2004 marketing year. Of those, 258,000 tons were exported.
This year, U.S. peanut farmers are expected to produce a record 2.6 million tons, about 900,000 tons more than last year. The U.S. will export about 262,000 tons, said Nathan Smith, a UGA Extension Service peanut economist.
Southeastern peanuts are so good because of a long growing season and good soil, Beasley said. “And producers are dedicated to a high-quality product.”
But the key to excellent peanut flavor is a timely harvest. Farmers must monitor peanut maturity carefully in each field.
“Plant on a timely basis, harvest on a timely basis,” Beasley said, “and you're going to have a good, flavorful peanut.”
But if U.S. growers become slack, “we could quickly lose our reputation,” he said.
Southern peanut farmers have to deal with many diseases and pests, but they also have longer windows to plant and harvest their crops.
Argentina farmers, for instance, get cool weather quickly in the fall.
“It doesn’t take many nights of temperatures in the mid-to- lower 50s to shut the maturity process down,” Beasley said.
The effects of weather can show all the way to grocery store shelves. Drought conditions and cool fall weather especially affected Georgia’s 1986 peanut crop.
“We had a lot of peanuts dug before they were physiologically mature,” Beasley said. “We had more complaints about peanut flavor that year than any other. The peanuts had a big enough size, but when they were roasted, they gave off a bitter taste.”
This year, some Southern peanut growers are facing fast- approaching cooler weather with crops that may not be ready for harvest.
Cool spring weather and rain forced some farmers to plant later, into June. This pushes optimal harvest dates into November. Because it reduces the chance of the crop getting the deadly tomato spotted wilt virus, Georgia peanut farmers usually plant in May.
(Stephanie Schupska is a news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.)