It’s lunchtime at the Barber home in Macon, Ga. Three-year-old Samuel has just gotten up from his nap, and he’s hungry for a creamy peanut butter sandwich.
Carol Barber says Samuel eats peanut butter for lunch almost every day. He’s not the only one; she has three other little boys.
Millions of Americans love peanut butter sandwiches. It’s easy to make, a “kid favorite” and, until now, relatively inexpensive. But in November, the price of peanut butter increased by more than a third.
That’s bad news for people like Barber. Peanut butter has been one of her “go-to” foods during the economic downturn.
“We’re always looking for things on sale. We are usually looking for non-name-brand things, and we try to find the biggest bang for our buck, especially in terms of feeding a family of six,” Barber says.
However, that’s getting harder to do. To find out why, you don’t need to look any farther than Benny Johnston’s farm, 100 miles away in Ocilla.
A peanut combine lumbers over the neat rows picking and separating the pods from the vine. Mounds of peanuts are dug up and dry in the sun. The “good” peanuts travel up a conveyor and into a bin.
Johnston, 73, has been farming since he was 16. He says this year has been different from previous years.
“It’s been a trying year. We had so much hardship, starting off with no moisture and all we had to contend with, and then the heat was so excessive. Heat, we think, hurt us a lot,” he says.
Still, Johnston considers himself lucky. This year’s long, hot drought pummeled farmers, but he has an irrigation system. University of Georgia peanut agronomist John Beasley says without irrigation, many farmers would have no crop at all.
“Unfortunately, I have walked some fields in this state this year that are going to end up with zero yield,” Beasley says. “Or the yields will be estimated to be so low by crop insurance that the cost of harvesting would not cover the value of what you would have harvested.”
This is a problem for consumers because almost three-quarters of the Georgia harvest is used to make peanut butter. The cost of peanuts has already doubled.
To add to the problem, says Don Koehler with the Georgia Peanut Commission, farmers planted more cotton and corn this season.
“Those commodities were better than the peanut price, and I think the peanut industry kind of dropped the ball and … didn’t get out there in front to say, ‘Let’s be sure we get enough acres planted,’ ” he says.
Some farmers still hope for the best. Armond Morris stands in his empty field as a tractor pulls bins of peanuts to a nearby shelling facility. Lots of products on grocery shelves need peanut butter, like candy bars. “But it’s going to be tight,” he says.
It will be tight for consumers, too. Barber says if peanut butter prices get much higher, she may cut back and buy a lot less of one of her family’s favorite foods.