From the Farmer's Tractor
July 27, 2008
Matt Muller, 36, runs Martha Valley Farms with his wife Kellie in Altus, Oklahoma. Their 1600-acre cotton and wheat operation also includes 100 acres of peanuts. Muller has been farming full time since 1993.
How did you get into peanut farming?
I rented my first piece of farmland when I was 15 years old and got my start borrowing equipment from dad, who is also a farmer. When I went away to college, I’d come home on weekends to spray or plow.
Following graduation, I started farming full time, and in 1996, when the Farm Bill modified the peanut production system, I started farming peanuts. We had seen from neighbors how well the peanut crop rotated in with other crops, and we wanted to do the same.
How have your farming practices changed over the last 10 years?
No-tillage farming didn’t exist when I started out. Today, we do more conservation tillage. Advances in technology and improvements in equipment have made minimum tillage possible and have really helped the environment and soil. We also have to watch our input costs more these days to stay competitive in the market.
How will peanut farming evolve in the next five years?
The peanut industry has evolved a lot and will continue to do so. When the quota system ended in 1996, it pushed production to more efficient growing areas. This is a good thing because water use and availability are becoming huge issues for us – and for agriculture across the board. Peanuts specifically are a water-intensive product.
Another change we’re seeing is in how peanuts are promoted in the marketplace. Peanuts came late to the table in terms of promotion, but we are now seeing more research into the health benefits of peanuts and these findings tie directly into better marketing. Rising demand, as a result of cost hikes on other proteins, is helping prices too.
Also, there is a trend now to plant peanuts that contain higher levels of oleic acids to increase both peanut health benefits and shelf life. This trend will certainly continue.
What is your greatest challenge as a peanut farmer?
Water is a big issue, but so is weed control. Because peanut operations tend to be smaller than some other commodity crops, companies don’t tend to spend a lot of money researching crop protection for us. So weeds are becoming a problem as the peanut plants become resistant to the crop protection products we have been using.
Labor is a big challenge as well, due to our inability to seriously tackle immigration and migrant worker issues. As farms get bigger, the labor supply pool is getting smaller. Skyrocketing fuel and input costs are additional challenges.
How does a farmer know what a retailer will want a year from now?
Essentially, we are at the mercy of who is driving the market financially. Consumers want high oleic acid peanuts, and so that’s what the grocery stores want to sell. Therefore, that’s what the shellers want us to plant. The good thing about this situation is that it makes us more responsive to consumers.
What steps are you taking toward conservation on the farm?
Of course, minimum tillage is a big part of conservation now. Minimum tillage uses less water and conserves moisture. And rotating crops is extremely beneficial because planting anything continuously isn’t good for pest control or the soil. I plant peanuts every three years with two crops of cotton or wheat in between.
What kinds of reactions do you get from consumers when they meet you in person?
I speak at two vintage equipment shows each year, and we target area schools with kids between the second and sixth grade. The kids love learning about how peanuts are produced, ask tons of questions and enjoy samples. Many of them have never had a peanut straight from the shell. They are eager to learn about the process and surprised when they find out where their peanut butter comes from.