A Passion for Peanuts

Elisha Barnes and Marshall Rabil are keeping tasty, traditional peanuts alive in Suffolk.

Historically, peanuts have been one of Virginia’s staple crops — so much so that the city of Suffolk was dubbed the “peanut capital of the world” by 1941.

Today, Elisha Barnes and Marshall Rabil of Hubbard Peanut Company have created a partnership that ensures the tradition of peanut farming remains vibrant while also keeping alive a historic method of peanut production that has existed for hundreds of years.

Peanuts were originally brought from Africa to North America in the 1700s, along with enslaved people during the transatlantic slave trade. The legume took off in popularity in American culture for two reasons: First, roasted peanuts were sold at P.T. Barnum’s circuses across the country, increasing their demand, and perhaps more significantly, because of George Washington Carver.

Although Carver made many agricultural contributions, arguably his developments with peanuts are the most significant, as he came up with more than 300 uses for the legume, including soap, cooking oil, and of course, peanut butter.

As peanut popularity grew, farmers planted them throughout the country. The first commercial peanut crop was grown in 1842 in Sussex County, Virginia, or present-day Waverly, and within decades, the commonwealth became the largest producer of peanuts in the United States. That level of production created a need for peanut farmers; Barnes is a fourth-generation farmer continuing his family’s work. He also made a decision to grow peanuts in the traditional way, known as the “shocking” method.

The field they are getting ready to plant is near Franklin, Virginia.

“One of the main reasons that today’s farmers do not do this is because it is very labor intensive, so you cannot produce the volume that farmers need for sustainability,” Barnes explains. “All of these things that my father, and his father, and his father, passed down. Farming peanuts and farming in general has to be special to you. It has to be more than a job. It has to be a passion.”

The shocking method stacks the peanut harvests on poles to cure in the sun. Since the 1960s, most farmers use a more modern method in order to dry the peanuts quickly, versus how Barnes’ chooses to dry them, which takes six weeks. “Shocking produces a quality of peanut that you can’t find anywhere else,” he says. “This was the way that everything was done on every farm at the turn of the century. There were no mechanized ways to do it. It is history.”

Barnes went to several companies to pitch his traditional peanuts, and found a kindred spirit in Rabil.

“I heard about Mr. Barnes and wanted him to do our single-origin peanuts,” says Rabil, recalling the day when out of the blue, the farmer walked into their office. “I said, ‘I know who you are’. He said he had these peanuts and I said ‘we’ll take all of them.’ That day we shook hands and we began to work with him.”

Barnes with Marshall Rabil, director of sales and marketing with Hubbard Peanut Company.

Barnes and Rabil are not only business partners, but they also work together to help lessen food insecurity. Barnes is growing peanuts on Izzie’s Field, the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia and the Eastern Shore’s 20-acre farm, which provides vegetables to community members in need with a portion of the proceeds from the peanuts going to the Foodbank. Rabil says: “It’s the first food bank field in Virginia. It’s the pinnacle of community engagement.”

Along with Barnes’ deep involvement in his community, his standout success in peanut farming has earned him the fitting nickname, ”the peanut man,” which suits him.

“At 68 years old, I’m living my best life. When I go to my daughters’ school to talk to students, I tell them to find your passion and stick to your passion. Your passion will make room for you,” says Barnes. “I am among all men blessed.”

Elisha Barnes with his two granddaughters, Layla Barnes (left) and Andrea Barnes (right). The young women are 6th generation peanut farmers helping their grandfather for the summer.

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