The Hutchinson News via Associated Press

HUTCHINSON, Kan. (AP) -- If he's been called any nicknames, they haven't been to his face, Rice County farmer Clark Schmidt says with a grin.

Yet he figures he's been the talk at the local elevator and morning coffee shops for his 65-acre peanut field not far from Sterling.

Peanuts in a state known for wheat production, after all, aren't typical. And for a farmer to plant them, well, it means a bit of gossip, which Schmidt brushes off as mere curiosity.

"Everyone's watching to see if this works," Schmidt said as he drove toward his field of freshly dug peanuts in mid-October. "They're all interested."

In his years of farming, the young farmer hasn't really veered away from traditional Kansas crops.

Schmidt's father, Geral, was a custom cutter, traveling from Texas north following the ripened wheat. Schmidt, himself, farms wheat, milo, soybeans and corn, as well as raises cattle in Rice County.

Yet on this fall day, Schmidt stood in his field of peanuts, a Caprock Peanut Co. hat on his head. He said he is hopeful -- wondering if, in the next decade, his little experiment might blossom into another alternative for Kansas farmers.

It happened with cotton. The crop was nearly nonexistent in the state 15 years ago, and those who first planted it got a few chuckles from neighbors.

Now the state has four gins and farmers are expected to harvest 36,000 acres.

But can peanuts take off in a state known for its acres of wheat and corn? Maybe, said Ron Henning, a peanut production specialist with EMD Crop BioScience.

"Where you can grow cotton, you can usually grow peanuts," he said.

Henning, an agronomist, said peanuts are a subtropical plant usually grown in states such as Georgia, Alabama, Florida and southern Texas. However, over the past several years, peanut production has moved northward into Oklahoma, with farmers harvesting the crop around the Enid area -- 65 miles south of the Harper County seat of Anthony.

A new short-season variety of Spanish peanuts might help elevate the crop in Kansas, he said, but added Schmidt has all the right tools to make it work -- sandy soil that is right above a plentiful groundwater source.

Not that Schmidt used much irrigation, Henning said, noting the crop has flourished largely because of abnormally high precipitation this year.

A trip to Kansas early this month, a day after a crew dug the crop, showed good-yielding potential, Henning said, adding even he was a bit surprised at what he found.

"I wasn't expecting to see that many peanuts on the plant," he said. "Everything looks favorable, assuming he has enough frost-free days to get the crop to maturity without getting frost on them."

Besides the shorter growing season, another concern is freight, he said.

"They are eventually going to have to address this -- the infrastructure to handle the crop," Henning said. "He is probably 600 miles from where he is going to have to deliver them. That's not free."

Schmidt said he gets a little bit of a break in transport costs this year through Caprock Peanut Co., a holding a facility for peanuts, since the crop is experimental.

Schmidt said he isn't the first in the state to try peanuts, noting a few acres were planted several years ago in southwest Kansas.

Still, he thought the crop might be more profitable than soybeans and might fit nicely in his crop rotation.

After doing some research, he contacted Caprock. Doug Isaacs jumped at the idea of expanding to Kansas.

"We had been looking at Kansas for several years," Isaacs said. "We think Kansas might have peanut potential."

As states such as Texas continue to see declines in water resources, Kansas becomes even more ideal. South-central Kansas has good groundwater, and the area typically gets plenty of rainfall.

This year wasn't the most ideal, Isaacs said, noting the cooler, rainy summer made for a shorter growing season. Still, he estimated Schmidt's crop at 2 tons an acre -- an average-to-above-average yield.

Schmidt said input costs run similar to those for soybeans. And Isaacs said the good yields could mean about $850 an acre.

"The boy who is going up there to thrash them, he believes they might be the best peanuts he's ever thrashed," Isaacs said. "And he's thrashed a lot of peanuts in our area."

If the weather holds, harvest will begin today. A good-rated crop will go to products like fresh-roasted peanuts.

And if all goes well, Schmidt hopes to expand his peanut acres in 2010.

So how does he eat his peanuts? Schmidt said he didn't consume a ton of them before becoming a peanut farmer. Yet on this day, he shelled and ate a few of those awaiting harvest.

"I do now," he laughed.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

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