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New Mexico peanut industry slow to rebound following 2012 salmonella outbreak, production down

10/15/2014 04:28 EDT | Updated 12/15/2014 05:59 EST
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - There will be significantly fewer peanuts pulled from the ground in eastern New Mexico this harvest season because of lingering fallout from the bankruptcy and sale of a peanut-processing plant that was at the heart of a 2012 salmonella outbreak and nationwide recall.

Peanut farmers are expected to bring in 6 million pounds less this year, according to forecasts released this week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That represents nearly a 30 per cent drop in production in New Mexico from the year before.

The forecast calls for nationwide production to approach 5 billion pounds, an increase over last year, but those numbers won't include as many Valencia peanuts as in years past. Grown along the New Mexico-Texas border, the sweet variety is coveted for making natural butters and is what fueled the processing plant in Portales before it closed.

With no plant, there were no contracts and no bonuses for farmers to grow Valencia peanuts this year.

Portales residents remain anxious because it's unclear whether the plant's new owner, Golden Boy Foods, will resume operations.

"They've got a new sign up, but there's still no activity there at all. We don't know what their plans are," said Wayne Baker with the New Mexico Peanut Growers Association. "I wish they'd either get with the program or sell it to somebody else because we need the industry to get going again."

The closure of the organic peanut butter plant has had a significant effect on the industry, with lost jobs, income and tax revenue, New Mexico State University peanut expert Naveen Puppala said.

Retailers including Costco and Trader Joe's have since found other peanut butters to fill their shelves, and Portales-area farmers have found ways to stay afloat this year by planting cotton, grain and corn for silage.

The community is also getting relief from the drought, the dairy business is picking up and a highway project that hampered downtown business for over two years is nearly done — all reasons for spirits being so high as Portales gets ready for a weekend celebration that will mark 100 years of peanut production in the region.

"People have weathered it all really well — in Portales style, with a stiff upper lip," said Karl Terry, executive director of the Roosevelt County Chamber of Commerce.

The annual Peanut Valley Festival is expected to attract about 5,000 people from throughout the region. Visitors will be able to find everything from Cajun-flavoured peanuts to green and red chile brittle.

Peanuts have been synonymous with the Portales area for decades. In fact, it's still home to a processing plant operated by North Carolina-based Hampton Farms, which contracts with Major League Baseball to provide nuts to ballparks across the country.

Stuart Ingle, a Portales resident and minority floor leader of the New Mexico Senate, said the region has a century of experience and the type of sandy soil required for growing peanuts.

"The industry is going to be here for a long while. It sure is," he said.

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