AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Navigating safe returns for professional sports leagues includes limited or no fans, and Texas peanut farmers are hoping to avoid striking out this season.
No fans at the ballpark means drops in sales for the staple crop — often sold in stadiums across all levels of sports.
Many growers, like Mason Becker in Brownfield, Texas, produce the type of peanut sold in ballparks, called Virginia peanuts.
“It’s a very beneficial crop for us,” Becker said, calling it “an American classic.”
The initial impact may not hurt farmers right away, Becker said, explaining that peanuts are typically contracted before they’re planted, but market instability moving forward could pose problems down the line.
“Any time you take a considerable amount of the consumption off of the market, it will have an impact for sure,” Becker, of the Western Peanut Growers Association, said.
According to a representative from the Texas Farm Bureau, nearly 5.5 million bags of in-shell peanuts “are sitting in storage because the fans aren’t enjoying them at the game.”
“Texas peanut farmers count on that market every year,” Gary Joiner, Texas Farm Bureau communications director, said.
“Growers always want competition, always want bidders for the crops that they’re growing,” Joiner said. “And when you lose some traditional buyers every year, or in a one-year instance, like we are right now, sometimes it’s difficult to find where suitable homes are for those peanuts that are being grown.”
“Texas growers know the realities of the COVID-19 pandemic,” Joiner said. “I think they understand and respect the decision of the ballparks being closed. They’re going to make adjustments they’re going to try and find other uses for peanuts that would normally be in those ballparks.”
Joiner said this year’s pinch-hitter may come in the form of peanut butter — which Americans bought in droves as the pandemic materialized. Sales in March of this year were up 75% compared to March 2019.
“Peanut butter really became a go-to staple for a lot of families, and that helped Texas peanut farmers recover from some other markets that just weren’t there this year,” Joiner explained.
Becker’s message to consumers is to buy local, and buy Texas products, when possible.
“If you’re buying peanut butter, you know, try to buy peanut butter that’s from Texas or try to, you know, support Texas farmers because we are making a living, not only for our families, but the families of our employees depend on what we grow,” he shared.
Becker’s peanut crop costs about $900 per acre to grow, he said.
“In a year like this, I’m hoping to break even,” he said. “So if you multiply that over hundreds or thousands of acres, it’s a lot of money, a lot of money.”
To spend that kind of money and hope to break even year after year is a “tough deal” for Becker. Joiner said the ability of farmers to roll with the punches will help some survive.
“They’re having to secure markets for crops and for products that traditionally aren’t that difficult to find — now they may be,” Joiner explained. “It’s creative, they’re resilient, they’re doing their best, but it’s difficult right now — not easy, by any means.”
Beyond peanuts, other Texas commodities face similar challenges during the pandemic, particularly when it comes to planning for future planting.
“Think about looking forward: What should you plan for? What could you count on in terms of planning commitment? What is it that you can expect? Those are questions right now that are very difficult to answer in agriculture,” Joiner said.
“So much of agriculture right now is searching for that new normal,” Joiner said. “What was always expected year after year is not happening right now, including peanuts, including a lot of Texas commodities — they’re having to find new ways of doing business.”
Adding on to the regular unpredictability of agriculture, farmers face tough decisions this year in particular, with global markets offering considerable uncertainty due to the pandemic.
“This is my 11th crop, and since I’ve been farming, it seems like it’s just more and more difficult, things get more expensive and our commodity prices stay the same or go down and it hits increasingly harder to stay in business,” Becker said.
Photojournalist Dave Ewerz contributed to this report.