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The last peanut warrior

After 60 years, Congress wants to end the peanut program. But no government program that's lasted this long disappears overnight. And Wilbur Gamble's not making it any easier.

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Let's say you own a few thousand acres in south Georgia. You've lived there all your life, even served as chairman of the county commission for 30 years. But your passion is peanuts, and that passion has brought you around the world, from Scandinavia to Monte Carlo, from Argentina to Australia. Now you're 67, an age when a lot of people start taking afternoon naps.

Then you hear that Congress is about to pass a new farm bill, and as part of that bill, you stand to get more than $100,000 a year from the government for the next five years.

So, here's a question: What do you do?

Well, one thing you probably wouldn't do is work the phones all day trying to figure out a way to sue the very govern-ment that's planning to cut you those 100 grand checks.

But if you did, you'd have a lot in common with Wilbur Gamble, Terrell County commission chairman, gentleman farmer, member of the Georgia Peanut Commission, and, these days, a royal pain in the ass to those who believe it's time to finally put an end to the way America grows and sells its peanuts.

Gamble is one of the 27,000 Georgians who own a peanut quota -- essentially, permission from the U.S. government to grow peanuts and sell them at a hefty price. A quota holder might have permission to grow a thousand pounds of quota peanuts each season, or all the way up to a million pounds or more. Quota holders who no longer farm can rent out the quota to their neighbors. In south Georgia, there is an irrefutable calculus: Quotas equal money.

Their days, though, are numbered. Over-generous support prices and falling trade barriers have meant manufacturers are buying peanuts shipped in from Mexico or Argentina, avoiding for as long as they can the expensive ones raised on the red fields of Georgia and Alabama. Members of Congress want to end the quotas and pay out the quota holders.

They want to cut Wilbur Gamble a check, only he doesn't want it.

"It gets down to being a personal thing," he says from his office in Dawson, a sleepy burg on the road between Columbus and Albany. "OK, well, we'll see. They might win. I won't say they won't. But I know one thing -- it's gonna be a harder job for them to win 'cause of me and some other people who are out there. What they did was wrong, it was unfair and they did it with a lot of money being paid by the same people being taken away from."

As Tyrone Spearman, editor of a peanut industry newsletter, describes it, scrapping the quota program will trigger a "gigantic transfer of wealth" in south Georgia and other peanut-producing regions. It also could lower the price of candy bars and peanut butter -- although by how much is a matter of contention.

Or, as Chad Gunter, a 28-year-old peanut farmer from Worth County, says, "Just like everything else -- some are gonna win, some are gonna lose."

To city slickers, farming seems a simple proposition. Grow a crop, harvest it, sell it. If the growing season is good, hope that it's not so good that there's a glut and prices plummet. If it's bad, hope that you harvest enough to take advantage of the higher prices. Rotate crops. That will help keep your soil healthy and act as a hedge if one crop tanks.

The equation, though, fails to take into account the government, which for decades has been vitally interested in how America farms. It's an interest that served the country well during the Depression, when government subsidies first began flowing into farms. For example, beginning in 1941, peanut farmers were assigned "allotments"; for every pound of peanuts produced up to a certain amount, farmers were guaranteed an attractive price.

Over time, allotments gave way to quotas. Peanuts produced over a set amount also could be sold, but at a much lower price. These are called "additionals." Without a quota, a farmer is free to grow peanuts, but they can be sold only as additionals -- hardly worth the trouble.

So if a farmer with no quota wants to grow peanuts and make money, he has two choices: rent quota from someone, or buy it outright.

Not surprisingly, a system like this is enough to make free-market proponents apoplectic.

"It's a total scam," says James Bovard, a policy analyst at the Cato Institute and author of The Farm Fiasco. "It's almost like a system of indentured servitude. ... You've got Congress year after year voting to perpetuate these monstrosities."

"Government-appointed monopolies," grouses the Peanut and Tree Nut Processors Association, a manufacturers' group.

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