Sometimes you feel like a (pea)nut
LAKE WILSON -- Tucked away in a small area north of Lake Wilson sits a patch of an unusual plant.
It can't be seen from the gravel road that leads past Dale Nepp's land, but head down a narrow path between two cornfields and there it is.
A crop of peanuts -- in southwest Minnesota.
Nepp grows Valencia peanuts, which have a light brown shell and a red skin on the nut.
"These were put in during June," Nepp said while digging up a peanut to inspect. "I think the eighth was the last time I replanted. They could use a little more time. The way you can tell is when you look at the veining on them. The outer part of this peanut is starting to develop more coarseness to it."
A peanut is a rare crop to see in southwest Minnesota. Not because peanuts don't grow well, but because of the change in weather.
"They get more heat and longer days as far as the growth (in southern states)," Nepp said, explaining his peanuts are about a 100-day crop. "They don't have to worry about freezing so quick. Here, these peanuts would love another two weeks of being out here maturing."
Nepp has been growing peanuts since 1989. It all started with a trip to Mississippi with a friend.
"I went down there to paint and we looked at the property to see if we could plant some peanuts and the weeds were taller than me, so there was no chance of that," Nepp said. "My buddy wanted to plant them because he loved boiled peanuts. When he brought some back to Colorado, they went over so well that he thought, 'Boy I ought to raise them."'
When Nepp returned from his trip, his father asked about the peanuts.
"When I came back, my dad made the mistake -- I thought he did, anyway -- of saying, 'I remember when my mom planted some in the garden out here,'" Nepp said. "I looked at him and I'm like, 'What? You're kidding.' I had no clue whatsoever. I said, 'How did they grow?' He said they grew pretty good. I asked, 'Then what?' He said, 'She put them in the oven and roasted them.'"
That sounded like a good idea to Nepp, so he began growing a crop of his own.
"My dad was somewhere close to being embarrassed a little bit," Nepp said. "He really didn't understand it, either. He had to field questions, and I wasn't here and he said, 'It was my kid's idea, not mine.'
"There was a lot of curiosity. I had a lot of people stop and look at them. When we were out with the combine, people would stop and come out and look. That was something different for those guys. They had farmed their whole life, and a lot of people around here had never seen a peanut grown. They didn't know what a combine looked like. Guys that knew a lot about equipment would be curious not having seen a peanut digger.
"I've had so many people who've said, 'I didn't know peanuts could grow here.'"
He has had up to five acres of peanuts. This year, because of obligations in Colorado, he only has a small plot.
"I knew I was leaving for Colorado and I thought it was too big of an investment," Nepp said. "I thought I would do an experimental deal. I had changed my thinking."
Even with the smaller crop, peanuts are still a lot of work.
"I spent hours and hours at night, I'd watch the sun go down and I'd be out there well after the sun goes down walking through, trying to have a decent field of peanuts because they can look terrible," he said.
Weeds are a big concern for Nepp. However, he has a small sprayer he can use to go over the plants. The question was what to spray on peanuts.
"I went down to Chandler Co-op four or five years ago and they opened up their book. There is a ton of different things," Nepp said. "They were very helpful. I'd go in there with peanuts over the years and give them peanuts that I cooked. Most everybody likes those peanuts. On one hand, even though no one is raising them, they know it's crazy a little bit because they are like, 'Why aren't you planting more corn and soybeans?' And I am right now because the people that are putting my crop in and taking it out for me, they got all the equipment and they live a mile away."
While peanuts are similar to the corn and soybeans most farmers grow in southwest Minnesota, there are some differences.
"The first year that we planted them, (a friend) had his soybean cups in and he thought they were going to slip right through there," Nepp said. "We opened up that first bag of peanut seed and he was like, 'Uh oh.' So we went back to his place and took those off and put the corn back on. Then he sent me to town for graphite to help get them to slide through there a little better."
Once the crop was in the ground and mature, Nepp then had to harvest the nuts. The first step is to dig the peanuts out of the ground.
"No one's ever run a peanut digger, you're trying to get it set so it doesn't dig too much dirt," Nepp said. "We don't need any more than we need to get the peanuts up and out of the ground."
The digger lifts the peanuts from the soil and flips them over, exposing the nut to give it a chance to dry.
"After these have been dug and in the windrow and dried down to somewhere between 60 percent and 25 percent and the weather conditions are right and the dew is off, you're going to drive across the wind row and pick these peanuts up (with the combine)," Nepp said. "There is a series of claws in here that rip the peanut. The peanut will still be in the shell, but they separate that from the vine. It sends that vine out behind."
The combine was shipped from the south on a truck to Minnesota.
"The first time I heard this thing run, I stood back about 25 feet," Nepp said. "I thought, 'Is it going to blow up?' It was making noise; there were all kinds of belts moving."
To continue to dry the peanut, the crop is put into a special wagon. The wagon has a false bottom, with doors on either side to allow air to flow through. A fan can be attached to help move the air.
"The peanut wagon is designed to blow air through the bottom," Nepp said. "They are nothing special, they are outdated as far as the newer stuff, but they still work."
The moisture is also a big concern for peanuts.
"The last year -- two years ago -- that I had peanuts out here, we had a wet fall and it just never dried out," Nepp said. "I counted the rows, and I had more peanut rows than I did soybeans. I estimated somewhere between four and five acres. It just kept raining and kept raining. They were put in a little late, it was a cool summer and they didn't mature. The shell itself couldn't withstand the constant barrage of staying wet all the time and not being mature enough to withstand that."
When he does have a crop, the prices are fairly high.
Currently, Nepp isn't marketing his peanuts to consumers. But someday he hopes that happens. His true craft is painting, but he knows he won't be able to do that forever.
"At some point, I won't be able to go up and down (the ladders) or move them. You think in your mind, if you're a painter, you're going to be looking for something short and down here to do," said Nepp. "At the same time, I'm 60, or I'm going to be next month. You look at the kind of environment of being out in the public and if you were selling something like a Minnesota-grown peanut, how could you not like that?"
While Nepp would like to market a home-grown peanut, he is also passionate about passing his knowledge to the next generation.
"I don't want to walk away from it and not be involved in it," he said. "At this point, I know I could probably go to those FFA and 4-H clubs and get some interest. Maybe there would be a few of those kids who would be interested enough to plant some in their garden."