By Marvin Baker, a new weekly column in The Kenmare News
Posted 2/12/14 (Wed)
It’s amazing what we can learn when we put our minds to it.
For me, it’s about an endless library of agriculture and learning about some of the things that are perceived as impossible in North Dakota.
One of them is the peanut. Yes, the peanut that you shell and eat at baseball games.
There’s been a lot of information over the years in places like the Carolinas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and even Minnesota that suggests peanuts can’t grow in northern latitudes.
I’ve seen some of that research in 2003 when I spent several months in Kansas. But I didn’t believe it for two reasons; first, I’ve always been optimistic about the natural plant world and, like animals, they can adapt to their environment.
Second, my grandfather grew peanuts in North Dakota in the 1920s and if he could do it then, there are better varieties now.
That was good enough for me so I found some seeds and planted them in 2004. Unfortunately, that was the year we got frost on June 18 and again on Aug. 20, making it a 62-day growing season, three days less than the average in Fairbanks, Alaska.
My peanuts grew and produced some nice foliage but no seeds.
I knew that season was a fluke so I tried it again in 2005. That was a very pleasant surprise.
The yield was 25 pounds and I didn’t know what to do so I contacted the Peanut Bureau of Canada, yes Canada, and they gave me guidelines on how to dry and cure the peanuts.
In 2006, my National Guard unit mobilized so none were grown that year and when I got home in 2007, it was mid July, too late to plant peanuts and expect a crop.
But by 2006, we became certified organic and obtaining seed became much more difficult. The only place I knew of selling peanuts to consumers like myself was Gurneys, which doesn’t have organic offerings.
That led me to countless letters, e-mails and phone calls to companies all over the United States and Canada to obtain organic peanut seed.
I finally found a company in Virginia called Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. That was the only place I could purchase organic seed peanuts. Everybody else, and I’m not exaggerating when I say 50 agencies, told me I can’t grow peanuts in North Dakota.
Unfortunately, Southern Exposure only sells small packets and they are expensive. So, I took the plunge and ordered $50 worth of seeds and planted them for the 2009 season. The result was 9 pounds.
That isn’t a lot so I kept all the seed for replanting. I didn’t plant in 2010, but kept doing research on what I might have done wrong and how I might correct it.
The seeds were planted in 2012 and we got our best year yet, a yield of 29 pounds. I was happy with that number as it was a garden row of about 140 feet.
Frank Kutka, a researcher with Northern Plains Sustainable Agriculture Society found out what I was doing and contacted me to ask if I would speak at the annual convention in Aberdeen, S.D., regarding my “impossible” peanut plots.
I did and while in Aberdeen, Frank said he could obtain some additional varieties for me to grow in a bona fide field trial. In April 2013 those peanut seeds arrived. Fifty seeds each in 18 seed packets from 11 countries.
I’m happy to report that the results have now been documented, with copies going to Frank, as well as the Entrepreneurial Center for Horticulture at Dakota College in Bottineau.
Of the 18 varieties, four of them show a lot of promise and I will be planting them again in the spring. Two of those varieties are from Russia, one is from Japan and the other from Nigeria.
Again, as my hunch was back in 2004, I see it again. If peanuts can grow in Russia, or Canada, why not North Dakota?
In these past 10 years I’ve learned two important things about peanuts. No. 1, they need to have a germination temperature of 65 degrees, so they must be started in a greenhouse much like tomatoes. Second, when the peanut is growing, the plant behaves just like a pea or a lentil and will most often grow to maturity as long it is a 130-day variety or less.
My grandfather John Ackerman, a Swiss immigrant, grew peanuts in Hazelton in the 1920s. His love of nature and plants, as I remember him, will keep me growing peanuts and other unusual plants. I wouldn’t doubt that what I grew last year are descended from plants he grew in the ‘20s.