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May 17, 2012 at 6:00 AM

CB’s Nuts working for peanuts — Washington-grown peanuts!

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Clark Bowen of CB’s Nuts spent years pursuing what he called “the holy grail” of peanut butter production — locally grown nuts.

It seemed a dream for the Kingston-based roastery and its peanut-loving owners. After all, Washington state’s weather is far from the long, hot growing seasons of the South and Southwest, where peanut crops thrive.

This month, though, 10 acres of Valencia peanuts were planted on Friehe Farms in Moses Lake. It’s being called the state’s first commercial crop of Valencias, which are typically used for peanut butter. If all goes well, the small — but meaningful — harvest is destined for CB’s.

Bowen is thrilled. He’s been working with Washington State University researchers for years hoping they could find a way to eke a market for peanuts out of Washington soil. (Some smaller producers, like Alvarez Farms, do grow the nuts on a smaller scale.)

It’s been a challenge in all sorts of ways.

“Our growing season is a little too short if you don’t choose the right variety. (Even so), you’ve got to get them out of the ground before you get a hard frost,” said Tim Waters, a regional vegetable specialist with WSU Extension.

And, because we don’t traditionally grow commercial crops of peanuts, we don’t have the infrastructure to handle them, Waters said. Peanuts require a special harvester called an inverter, and extra equipment to let the plants dry out, not to mention facilities to shell and process the crop. While some drying and processing could technically be done in bean production facilities, producers typically don’t want to use peanuts in their factories because of the cross-contamination risk from the allergens.

“To be honest, in Washington state we grow over 300 crops commercially…We’re a very diverse agricultural state and we do a lot of things very well,” Waters said. “So when farmers have a lot of options, they tend not to be more adventurous, I guess.”

This year, though, some things changed. A major one was that a drought had ravaged the national peanut crop, sending peanut prices soaring (including an announced 30 percent price hike for Jif.)

WSU had been working on peanuts since 2006, when a grower in Basin City was trying out a few acres of peanuts and asked Waters to come take a look. “I said, ‘What? We don’t grow peanuts here,’ he recalled.”

“It was a big learning curve that year.”

They learned that some varieties simply couldn’t do well in Washington state, such as the big ballpark peanuts that take longer to mature. They worked on crop innoculation and weed control. Eventually, they thought they could produce a viable crop, but they didn’t see much of a market for one.

“Right when we started doing this, the price of wheat started going up, the price of corn started going up — things we know we can grow well came on pretty strong.”

But this year, growing peanuts clearly pencilled out — and Clark and Tami Bowen of CB’s thought the evidence had grown to prove that customers would pay a higher price for a high-quality local product. Friehe Farms agreed.

“It may be niche as far as the grand scheme of things,” Clark Bowen said, but it’s a large enough market to make it worthwhile. If the crops grow as well as the participants expect over the next few years, they’ll have more than 1,000 acres planted — “you’re talking 3 million pounds plus of peanuts.”

The Valencia strain planted here is the same one that Bowen had been buying from the Southwest, sold to him by his producers there. This year, they’ll truck the harvest to New Mexico and have that grower shell and grade the peanuts for them.

“It’s not the most efficient thing to do, but you have to start somewhere,” Bowen said. And again, if all goes well, the plan is for a pilot plant to do that work in Eastern Washington. Ideally, they’ll also transition to organic nuts. (The local harvest should be on shelves in December, and you can find the company’s peanut butter here.)

I remember seeing a few precious peanuts from trial Washington crops when I profiled CB’s in 2009 for a story on small producers trying to break ties to industrial-size production chains. The squeaky-clean facility with its super-fresh products was already a hit, at a time when other producers were reeling from a national peanut recall that rocked people’s perceptions of organic and natural food suppliers.

CB’s has grown in the years since to the point where the company’s production is moving to a larger roastery down the street. The Puget Sound Business Journal recently reported that the company’s revenues should hit $1 million this year.

“It’s still tiny, but good for us,” Bowen said. Sort of like the peanut crop.

“I don’t think we’re going to have commercial peanut production on the scale we have potatoes..” Waters said. “But for a niche market like Clark has? I think it could do well.”

Just before we spoke yesterday, Waters had finished planting a trial crop of sweet potatoes — another harvest we don’t typically associate with Washington state.

“We have a great climate and plenty of irrigation water and there’s not a lot we can’t grow if we take the time to learn about the crop.”

Photo: Valencia peanut crop being planted, courtesy of CB’s Nuts

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