Smithfield, IW part of peanut history

Published 7:43 pm Tuesday, November 12, 2019

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Anyone with even a passing interest in the history and culture of the lands lying south of the James River will find “The Virginia Peanut Story” entertaining as well as informative.

This one-hour documentary, produced and directed by Amy Drewry of Wakefield, traces the importance of the peanut in Southeast Virginia history.

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It’s an intriguing story, and Drewry begins it by tracing the migration of the peanut from the ancient native civilizations of South America to Asia, Africa and eventually, the American South.

Drewry wraps the story around peanut farmers who have for generations raised peanuts despite failing markets, adverse weather, multiple diseases and finally, a workable government program abandoned in favor of market desires for high volume and — Virginians would argue — lower quality nuts.

She tells the story of Federal soldiers who learned during the Civil War to eat and enjoy these “ground peas” and took their newfound taste home with them.

Then, then story moves the Deep South (a part of the history I was unfamiliar with) and describes the devastating effect of the boll weevil on the South’s agricultural economy.

Enter George Washington Carver, a Tuskegee Institute professor whose lifelong study of peanuts and sweet potatoes had much to do with the late 19th century agricultural’s entry into more modern times. The primary concern of Carver, who was born a slavery, was quite naturally the plight of poor blacks in the south. He encouraged them to plant peanuts and sweet potatoes and spent his life developing ways both could be used. His scholarship helped not only freed slaves, but the entire south, develop an important new agricultural commodity.

Drewry’s portrayal of the peanut then shows the importance of inventions — the Ayers planter and the peanut picker among them — and the accompanying evolution of the industry into what was to become Southeast Virginia’s most important money crop for more than half a century.

She also explains the rise of “chemical farming” practices that reduced labor, increased yields and generally transformed the peanut belt into its modern image.

Isle of Wight historians, including the irrepressible Carolyn Keen, were not impressed with Drewry’s first draft. After viewing a preview of the film several months ago, Keen and others chastised Drewry and the committee that assisted in the film’s development for completely ignoring the role Smithfield played in the industry’s early development.

At one time, Smithfield was proclaiming itself the “Peanut Capital.” That is, until fire destroyed the waterfront peanut shelling plant and warehouse, and the town gave way to Suffolk, where Amadeo Obici, the immigrant founder of Planters Peanuts, taught everyone something about marketing.

Drewry responded well to the criticism and revised the film to give Smithfield its due, and while there will always be those who are not satisfied with the result, the film, in my view presents a balanced narrative of this important crop’s role in our history.

Be your own judge by viewing the documentary. It will air on WHRO Thursday, Nov. 14 at 9 p.m., Saturday, Nov. 16 at 4 p.m. and again on Sunday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. Watching it will be time well spent.