If there’s one thing Americans of every race, political opinion, and religion can agree on, it’s that peanuts are awesome. We grow peanuts in larger amounts than anyone else in the world, and we are eating peanuts in enormous quantities, too. Peanuts and peanut products are 67% of all nuts being eaten in America, and 90% of our households eat it. Every year between 2008 and 2014, our nation ate 120 million pounds of peanut butter, and we’re doing so much peanut harvesting that since 2013 the USDA estimates we export more than 350,000 metric tons of peanuts.
So what is it about the peanut? It does have some health benefits. One ounce of raw peanuts has 7.3 grams of protein and a fair amount of fiber. But there’s also an element of national heritage involved, too, since it was Americans–really beginning with George Washington Carver–who got us to grow peanuts because of the many uses they could be put to. Peanut harvesting doesn’t just give us peanuts and peanut butter, but also peanut oil (peanut oil uses include treating everything from constipation to eczema), peanut flour (which is a natural thickener for gravy or soups and can be reconstituted to make peanut butter), and a host of other derived products.
The most commonly grown type of peanut in the United States is the runner peanut, which makes up 75% of the national peanut crop. Peanuts get planted in 13 states, mostly at the southern end of the country, after the last frost in April or May each year. The seedlings sprout out of the dirt within 10 days and grow into a plant with oval-shaped leaves. The peanuts themselves grow below ground. One of the benefits of peanut harvesting is the reduced water usage compared to other nuts: it takes about five gallons of water to raise an ounce of peanuts. That same amount of almonds demands 80 gallons!
About 120 days after planting, the farmer on the peanut farms is ready for peanut harvesting. They have to be dried for a few days after harvesting so they can stored without going moldy, and then a combine separates the peanuts from the peanut vine. The peanut vine gets plowed back into the field, where it does a great job of nourishing the soil; or it’s fed to livestock as a particularly nutritious snack.
It takes, according to the National Peanut Board, about 540 peanuts to make one 12 ounce jar of peanut butter. Since we’ll be eating about 160 million jars this year, it’s a good thing we grow so much!