Picture This: April 2014 — A shell of a place

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A shell of a place

Its cultivation may be moving south, but in Bertie County, where Powells have peddled peanuts for decades, the legume still rules.

Jack Powell has a letter his great-grandfather penned in 1898 in which he writes about harvesting them. “We’ve always had a lot of peanuts around here,” Powell, 71, says. The crop became especially prevalent in the northeastern corner of the state when the federal government tied peanut quotas to the land there in the 1930s and ’40s. The 2002 Farm Bill curtailed the price support, leading much of its cultivation to head to the southeastern region of North Carolina. The state ranks fifth in the U.S. in peanut production — 435 million pounds valued at more than $150 million in 2012 — but Bertie County, where the Powells live, is still the state’s top grower, with nearly 10% of the Tar Heel haul. 

In 1919, Luther Powell and brother-in-law Jonathan Stokes started Powell & Stokes Inc., a farm-supply business in Windsor. It sold fertilizer and seed, purchased peanuts and cotton from local growers and was a gathering place. “Farmers used to sit around a lot more then. They seem awfully busy now, but back in the day, our office would be full of farmers telling stories.” His father, Jack Powell Sr., gave those assembled peanuts he cooked in a popcorn popper. Jack Jr. took the fried goobers to Rotary Club meetings. Friends suggested he start selling them, so he took their advice. In 1992, he and brother Bill began marketing Bertie County Peanuts as part of Powell & Stokes, which they were running by then.

The crop is planted in May and harvested in September and October, when farmers from across the region haul them to Powell & Stokes, as they have for 95 years. Employees — nine plus about 20 part-timers in the fall — dry, weigh and grade the legumes and pay the farmers accordingly. The company then sells them to Severn Peanut Co., a “sheller” about 45 miles away in Northampton County. Powell & Stokes then buys shelled Virginia-variety peanuts from Severn to sell as Bertie County Peanuts. (Since Severn buys peanuts grown in other states, too, there’s a chance a Bertie County Peanuts peanut is not from Bertie County or even North Carolina.) Most peanuts sold in grocery stores are runners — a smaller variety mostly grown in Georgia, the nation’s top peanut-producing state. Virginia-style peanuts are grown in the Old Dominion, the Carolinas and Texas, and only about 10% are graded super extra large, which is what Bertie County Peanuts uses for its blister-fried kind. And because customers associate size with quality, it packs them in clear plastic jars. The 10-ounce size retails for $5.70 on its website; a 30-ounce jar goes for $14.

Bertie County Peanuts generates about 20% of Powell & Stokes’ revenue, which the Powells won’t disclose. There are many varieties to choose from — including chocolate- and butterscotch-covered, unsalted ones and even raw peanuts still in their shells — but the original blister-fried ones remain the best-seller. The shelled peanuts are soaked in water, then deep-fried, which causes blistering, spread on trays and sprinkled with popcorn salt. Most of the preparation and packaging is done by hand.

The products are sold online, at the Windsor store and through retailers across the Southeast. Powell estimates that more than half of annual sales come in the six to eight weeks around Thanksgiving and Christmas. That helps get Powell & Stokes through the winter, when fertilizer and seed sales are scarce. “Obviously we’ve done some things right,” Powell says. “We’re heading for 100 years.”

— Leah Hughes is a Charlotte freelance writer.