This is the second installment in a two-part series looking at an “average” small-operations farm in Allen County. Earlier this month an article highlighted the Covey family’s system of farm-to-table poultry. Today, peanuts.
TENNESSEE RED VALENCIA (Arachis hypogaea): aka, Gilbert’s Goobers
Gilbert Covey holds a peanut shell up to his ear and shakes it. Rattle. “Hear it?” He shakes it again. Rattle. He shakes it one more time. “Hear it? That’s how you know it’s ready. That means they’re dry.”
It’s been a long time, about 10 years, since Covey last cultivated a small crop of peanut plants. It’s an unusual crop for the area. Most of the billions of pounds of peanuts that make it to U.S. markets each year are grown in the American South, with about half of those coming from Georgia.
“Peanuts originally come from Brazil,” explains Covey. “The United States got them back in the 1700s, so they’ve been here a while. But they’re just not grown much around here, not that I know of.”
Covey is holding a peanut plant he’s recently exhumed from his garden. The branches are heavy with their particular fruits. Covey plucks a single wrinkled shell from a vine.
“These are Tennessee Red Valencia,” he explains. He opens the shell, revealing three healthy-looking peanuts, each coated in a papery, richly-tinted red skin. “You can see here how they got their name,” says Covey. Because they look like they’re from Tennessee? “Because of their color. Here, taste one.”
Covey explains that peanuts, like the soybeans that crowd the fields around his rural Elsmore farm, are actually legumes, not nuts. “That mainly means they produce their own nitrogen for the plant. And these here are what you call heirloom peanuts. Now, an heirloom is open-pollinated, so you can go ahead and keep your seed and plant it next year.
“You know,” says the overmodest Covey, “they’re actually pretty easy to grow.”
HERE, then, is that process in a nutshell (sorry): Covey orders a quarter-pound package of starter peanuts from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange in central Virginia. Once they arrive, he breaks open the shells and retrieves the peanuts. He plants each seed in a six-inch pot and keeps them in his greenhouse until each plant is sturdy enough to withstand the elements outdoors. When they reach a durable size — about five or six inches — Covey moves the plants to his garden. This is usually around the middle of April, once the frost has gone.
“They’re slow-starters,” says Covey. “Meaning, it might be that for almost a month you can’t hardly see that they’ve grown. In fact, I was beginning to wonder about them. But then, all of a sudden, here they go.”
After flowering, the thigh-high plant generates a number of long tendrils that curve toward the ground. Shoot-like “pegs” then branch off from the tips of these tendrils and dive into the soil. In time, with the absorption of water and nutrients, a peanut shell forms at the end of each peg.
During this final phase, Covey and his grown son, Andrew — “I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Covey says of his only son — “we cover the peanuts with an extra layer of dirt. … I watched my own dad use this method when I was a child,” says Covey. “See, my dad raised a few peanuts and that’s what he did, and it worked. Almost 60 years ago.”
Last week Covey began the process of digging up the mature plants. “You pull the whole thing up and let them dry.” Covey strung pieces of rope from one end of his greenhouse to the other and is letting the peanut-heavy plants hang upside down in the warmth of that building until they’re ready to be culled.
Once they’re dry — once each shell gives off its natural rattle — Covey and Andrew will handpick each pod.
“This year, I’m going to try something that a friend of mine told me about,” says Covey. “He said to soak them in saltwater. He didn’t know for sure how long. That way you kind of get the salt into the peanut, because it goes through the shell. And my wife, Diana? She’ll put them in the oven and roast them.”