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Early Spring Luring Peanut Farmers into Planting Mistake

Sunny, breezy days. Trees budding into a thousand shades of green and flowers flaunting all the colors they can create. It feels like spring, when a man's thoughts turn naturally to planting.

"Yes, we do normally recommend that farmers plant their peanut crop when soil temperatures rise above 65 degrees for three or more days. But early March is just too early," said John Beasley, a peanut agronomist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

"There's a lot at stake here," Beasley said.

Unusually warm days and nights in early March warmed the soil to temperatures ideal for planting peanuts. And early spring rains provided the moisture seeds need to germinate.

But with the soil ideal for planting, Beasley was telling farmers to wait. "Weather is very fickle," he said. "Don't let it lull you into a false sense of security." Wait until fields have those same soil conditions, he said, between April 15 and May 20.

"Georgia's $388.5 million peanut crop is at stake," he said. Planting peanuts too early can cost farmers dearly.

But the temptation is there. Farmers have to carefully schedule their planting based on weather, soil conditions and other tasks on the farm.

"More and more farming operations work more land with fewer workers," he said. "That puts a lot of stress on farmers to get everything done in a timely manner."

Beasley said peanut seeds are extremely sensitive to temperature changes.

"Once the seed germinates and sprouts leaves, it's a little more cold hardy," he said. "But if the farmer plants and a cold front moves through, he's running the risk that the seed won't germinate and will just sit there prone to disease organisms and rot."

If a cold front moves into the area after soil preparation but before planting, it may force the farmer to wait to plant. That can undo all he's done to get the soil ready.

"Herbicides and insecticides can dissipate -- the farmer may have to reapply those," Beasley said. "Heavy rainfall can pack the soil and form a crust -- he may have to reharrow the field. A lot of money and time go into land preparation."

Farmers may face a bigger problem if they plant early. Beasley said tomato spotted wilt, caused by a virus, inflicts the most damage on peanuts planted early in the season.

"All our research on TSWV," he said, "shows the heaviest losses in peanuts planted before April 10."

The virus stunts young plants' growth so they often don't even produce peanut pods. Plants infected after pods form may not produce any more pods, but there are at least some nuts on the plant for harvest.

Beasley and UGA plant pathologists and entomologists figured this virus cost Georgia farmers about 10 percent of their 1996 crop, or $38.8 million.

That alone is enough to convince many farmers to wait, he said.

"I'm encouraging farmers to not be the first one in their neighborhood to plant," he said. "It's just not worth the risks to be able to say you're first."

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