Peanut picker’s debut on our farm

Published 9:55 am Wednesday, October 5, 2011

By Archie Howell

At some point the decision is made by someone that peanuts would become our main cash crop.

My father is a sharecropper, and decisions are made away from my eyes and presence. I use “our farm” and “the farm” synonymously. Cotton fields will no longer be a part of my experience.

The flat-bottomed wooden cotton planter is sidelined in favor of the curved steel wheel of the peanut planter. Planted cotton furrows have a flat top; peanut furrow tops are rounded. Cotton scales, pickers and all associated labors are now realigned and devoted to peanuts.

We have a tractor now. It’s an International Harvester Farmall. It stands tall and red on the paths and fields of our farm. It has attachments that can plow, plant, cultivate and harvest faster and with less effort than before. Progress.

I suppose part of the reason for moving to peanuts is that a market has developed and peanuts can be harvested mechanically. Peanuts are also a legume, not so devastating to the soil as cotton, and can be rotated advantageously with other crops.

At harvest time, peanut vines are dug and most dirt removed mechanically. Workers pick up the vines with peanuts attached, carry them to a tall stick and stack them for drying. Each stick has a short cross member at the bottom to keep the vines off the ground and facilitate air movement.

Our first “pea sticks” are small saplings cut from the woods, about eight feet tall. The smaller end is shaved to a point by a worker using a drawing knife, and the bottom cross braces are wooden strips cut a little longer than cook stove wood. Cross braces are nailed about two feet from the bottom end of the stick. The stick is buried like a post up to just below the cross stick. We use hundreds of these things.

One morning a bright red behemoth arrives in our yard. It’s a peanut picker, made by the Benthall Co. in Suffolk. It is steel-wheeled with gears and chains and belts and strange looking gadgets thrown about at random.

It is mostly wood, painted bright red. Red is a popular color for farm equipment. The picker has a table in front that feeds the dried peanut vines into an ever-hungry maw.

Strange looking blades chop up the vines, and the dried peanuts are somehow separated within the beast and exit through a chute at the side. Vine parts are blown from the rear, ready to be stacked. Stacked vines are cattle feed for winter. The whole thing is powered by a long belt from our tractor.

In the fall, after the dug up (plowed) and stacked peanuts have dried (about four to six weeks), the picker is towed out to a central part of a field and set up for business. Horse-drawn carts move about in the field and lift the shocks from the ground and drop them at the picker. Most carts handle two shocks, but four shock-carts are not unusual.

A worker removes the stick and feeds the vines into the picker at a rate that will not overpower the machine. It does have limitations. Another worker bags the peanuts as they exit at the side, and still another removes the vines from the work area at the rear. Generally it’s a four-person operation, or maybe five to run two carts. Late in the day, at dusk, the picker is shut down and the bagged peanuts are removed to storage.

Dust billows from this operation in great clouds, visible for a mile or more. At the end of the day, most workers are covered with a heavy layer, with only their eyes uncoated. Pea picking time is very visible to passers by. Peanut dust lingers in the air and has a distinctive smell. It softens the coming of night.

I open a can of Virginia peanuts and still smell the dust. I can remember the feel of burlap bags and the smoke from a small fire on cold mornings. I can feel the lift of the shocks to the cart. I can feel the cotton plowing lines in my hands. I can taste the taste of home.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High school. He can be reached at