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Some farmers can't make peanuts growing goobers

A ball game without peanuts?

Baseball fans, warming up for the coming season, would no doubt find that distinctly un-American.

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But down here in Southampton County, Va. -- the self-styled ''peanut capital of the world'' because of its high yields of large ''ballpark'' peanuts -- a century-old way of life may be changing under the influence of weather and free-market-oriented Reaganomics.

Any change away from peanut-growing won't mean the end of goobers at double-headers -- although the well-publicized peanut butter shortage of 1980 demonstrated the fragility of the market.

But drought conditions in four of the last six years - coupled with inflation and changing federal attitudes -- have forced some peanut farmers to look at other crops after generations of growing little else.

''We might see a shift to vegetables in this area,'' predicts county extension agent Ben S. Lee. He is working with several farmers on the possibility of raising sweet potatoes, yellow squash, and ''leafy greens.'' He also keeps cost and price figures for corn and soybeans close at hand.

Many farmers already here grow corn along with peanuts. But Michael A. Piercy , county supervisor for the Farmers Home Administration, says that ''there's not any money in corn,'' which costs about $3 per bushel to produce locally but sells for only $2.60 per bushel. These days, he says, most small farmers need to have what is locally called a ''public job'' -- some other job besides farming. But here along the North Carolina border jobs are scarce.

Compounding the problem are some changing federal attitudes toward the price support system. The Farm bill passed Dec. 23 by Congress set the 1982 ''national poundage quota'' for peanuts at 1.2 million tons -- which in effect means that the government will buy (for later resale) that many tons at a guaranteed price of $550 per ton.

But the government still has on hand some 200,000 tons of peanuts from the last harvest. And, says Gypsy Banks of the US Department of Agriculture in Washington, the price support system cost the taxpayers $18 million in 1979 and

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With such losses, she says, ''we can't survive.'' So, she explains, ''this department is moving toward a more market-oriented program. We want to get the government out of the market and let the growers, the handlers, and the marketers determine what is produced.''

So far, this shift in attitude has lowered the national poundage quota, which is proportioned out among the states and ultimately tells the individual farmer how much he can sell at the support price. The 1.2 million ton figure is down from last year's 1.44 million tons.

The shift in attitude has also disrupted crop planning, which farmers usually complete in January. A regulation issued by the Department of Agriculture in January says that the price support would be extended only to farmers who grew peanuts on their own land during two of the last three years.

But because of the widespread practice of leasing to tenant farmers not only the farmland but also the quota that goes with it, that regulation met a storm of protest.

So on March 8 new regulation was published, returning to the former quota-setting methods. But it may be early April before it is finally approved and the planning can be completed.

Planning is crucial. Mr. Lee, an affable black with a gold peanut-shaped tie-clasp, cites figures showing the risks involved. In Southampton County, peanuts cost about $638 per acre to produce - not counting the cost of labor and land. But land rents for about $100 per acre, and many farmers need to rent. So at a selling price of $550 per ton, a farmer needs to produce about 1.5 tons per acre.

Last year many did: The average yield was 3,200 pounds. But the year before the average yield was only 1,400 pounds.

Under the new regulations, however, farmers are permitted to grow as many acres of ''additional'' peanuts (beyond the quota) as they wish. The government buys these as well, but at only $200 per ton.

Mr. Lee points out that, aside from good weather, farmers would be most benefited by steady costs and prices. ''If we could get a hold on inflation,'' he says, ''then the farmers would know what to expect.''

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