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'Peanut proud' farm town struggles with tainted image

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"I don't think all the damage can be undone," says Brian Cresswell, a University of Georgia extension specialist who works two buildings down from the shuttered PCA plant. "A lot of those people who are scared about peanut butter will never come back. This has really brought to light how big the struggle is going to be."

With a population of about 5,300, Blakely had, by the grace of the peanut, become a success story here in the struggling agricultural plains of the South. Median household income in Blakely is just over $20,000, less than half the national average. But downtown revitalization programs, an eight-foot monument topped by a granite peanut, and flags with the motto "peanut proud" give the town's massive and clean courthouse square an imposing confidence, evidence of an agrarian success story with a soundtrack of blanching combines in the background.

Farmers, teachers, and plant workers labored in international anonymity. When Mr. Brown traveled overseas, no one had ever heard of his hometown.

"And that's how people here like it," notes Mr. Cresswell, the extension agent.

Anonymity now shattered, the effects of the peanut scandal could be catastrophic, says peanut farmer Denise Hattaway, desperately juggling numbers in a cramped barn office, overseen by a dusty picture of a brown Labrador retriever in full point. The fall of the peanut here "would be like closing GM in Detroit," she says.

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