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One food industry reaping the benefits of people staying home: Peanuts

Andy Uhler Sep 22, 2020
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Peanut consumption is at an all-time high during the pandemic. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

One food industry reaping the benefits of people staying home: Peanuts

Andy Uhler Sep 22, 2020
Heard on:
Peanut consumption is at an all-time high during the pandemic. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Grayson Wilmeth was a little distracted when he answered his cellphone on his farm in Dilley, Texas, about an hour southwest of San Antonio.

“There’s a whole bunch of coyotes running across my peanut fields as I’m talking to you,” he said, pointing the predators out to his kids.

Those coyotes can do some serious damage to a peanut field. Wilmeth and his crew are only a few weeks from harvest, so the fields are nice and green.

He needs all hands on deck, but that’s tougher that usual to pull off right now.

“My employees have had or have tested positive for COVID,” he explained. “My wife and I also tested positive about three or four weeks ago. So we’ve had to deal with this the entire growing season of these peanuts, being short-staffed.”

Nobody on his farm got too sick, so work was able to continue as long as people were quarantined in their own pickup trucks and tractors.

What’s more, he said the federal government strongly encouraged farmers like him to keep producing during the pandemic.

“And that’s what made things complicated is that they’re pushing us to keep growing food obviously,” he said. “They want us to keep working while everybody else is getting to stay at home.”

At home, Americans are eating a lot of peanuts. Consumption is at an all-time high.

“We saw peanut butter sales up in March 75% year over year,” said Ryan Lepicier with the National Peanut Board.

About 80% of the peanuts grown in the U.S. are runner peanuts, which are overwhelmingly ground into peanut butter. Forty percent of the peanuts grown in Texas are that variety.

“We’ve got all these parents working from home. They’re needing quick, easy meals for their kids or their kids,” said Shelly Nutt, executive director of the Texas Peanut Producers Board. “Kids are going to peanut butter and jelly sandwiches again, which has been great for our industry.”

Great for the peanut industry, sure, but a spike in demand means more work.

“They need all hands on deck shelling peanuts,” Nutt said. “And every time someone gets sick they’re out for two weeks and they’re having a shortage of help on the plant floor.”

She said peanuts have seen a climb in price over the last four or five months and are still trending up. 

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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