Goodness, how delicious…
How Brian Atkins and Birdsong Peanuts replanted the fields of Hamilton
Story Jeff Clark | Photographs Sam Gause
Sitting by the roadside on a summer’s day
Chatting with my mess-mates, passing time away
Lying in the shadows underneath the trees
Goodness, how delicious, eating goober peas.
Peas, peas, peas, peas
Eating goober peas
Goodness, how delicious,
Eating goober peas.
— Civil War folk song
THE COTTON FIELDS OF HOME
Hamilton is a one-stoplight town in Monroe County nestled along Highway 45 between the rural metropolises of Columbus and Tupelo. A once sleepy cotton town, Hamilton is now the epicenter of Monroe County’s latest cash crop, a crop that has been a part of the Southern landscape since the Civil War. And although it may not be as widely romanced as cotton or sweet potatoes, the lowly peanut — or “goober pea” as it is referred to in folklore — is gaining popularity in Northern Mississippi thanks in part to Birdsong Peanuts manager Brian Atkins.
“I was raised on a cotton farm and we always had success raising cotton: it’s how we paid our bills,” Atkins, a lifelong Monroe County resident, said. “One year, we had a really bad cotton crop, and the farmers in Hamilton needed to find something else to farm. I was the Lowndes County Agent at the time and I did some research on peanuts. It looked like it would be a sustainable crop for the Hamilton soil because we have dry soil. In 2006 we planted peanuts and yielded a good crop our first year out.”
So, Atkins did what any future peanut farmer would do — he called Birdsong’s headquarters in Suffolk, Va., and told the CEO he “was getting in the peanut business and that [Birdsong] needed to open a buying point in Mississippi.”
“He asked how much peanuts we were going to plant and I told him about 300 acres,” Atkins said. “He laughed a little bit. He was very nice, but he told me to call him back when we had more acreage.”
PEANUTS: IT’S WHAT’S FOR DINNER
Atkins said there are now more than 3,800 acres of peanuts in Monroe County. And true to his word, Birdsong CEO George Birdsong worked with Atkins to bring a buying point to Mississippi.
This year about 15,000 acres of peanuts (approximately 30,000 tons) will be processed at the Aberdeen facility between Labor Day and Thanksgiving. Green peanuts are brought in to the Aberdeen plant from the farmers, dried and stored in a warehouse and then are sent to one of the company’s shelling plants.
“Birdsong has six shelling plants from Virginia to Texas.” said Atkins. “The one we will be shipping to this year is in Texas because it didn’t rain much last year and their crop will be low.”
Once shelled, the peanut is then sold to a distributor.
“We do a lot of business with Smucker’s, which owns Jif Peanut Butter. We grow runner peanuts in Hamilton. They are primarily used for peanut butter. We are also 100-percent of the peanut butter in a Butterfinger candy bar. The Birdsong company controls about 35 percent of the market share in the United States. All Birdsong does is peanuts.”
“It was a little bit scary in the beginning when Brian quit his job and went to peanuts full-time, but we just had faith everything would work out,” said Atkins’ wife, Misti. “I eventually quit my job and went to work at the store. I do the store and Brian does Birdsong.”
The “store” is MS Peanuts located in the Lackey community on Highway 45, just south of Aberdeen. It sells everything one would need to begin farming peanuts, from seeds to pesticides. It also sells five pound bags of green ready-to-roast shelled peanuts.
“We named it Mississippi Peanuts, but everyone calls it ‘Miss Peanuts’; so now we call Misti ‘Miss Peanut’ because she runs the store.” Atkins would later admit he is often associated with the monocle-adorned yellow fellow with the masculine title.
“Yeah, my friends like to kid me and call me Mr. Peanut or General Peanut,” Atkins said with a laugh. “They are always giving me Mr. Peanut stuff as a joke.”
But for the affable Atkins, peanuts are no joke. The man loves the product he produces and sells.
“Every time we go to the store, Brian will sneak off and grab several jars of peanut butter,” Misti said. “We always have an abundance of peanut butter in our home.”
“Yeah, I like to keep the shelves looking less full so that they have to order more peanut butter and restock them,” Atkins said with a sly grin. “I have to make sure people are still buying peanut butter.”