Farmed and sun-cured as they were a century ago.
By Ari Weinzweig
Whether they’re in our heads, our homes, or our organizations, ecosystems in nature will almost always attract unto themselves. As permaculturist Toby Hemenway writes, “Life builds on life. … serendipities we never hoped for—a surprising new wildflower, a rare butterfly … will grace our lives almost daily.” Food writer Robin Kline lives in Iowa, but she is a long-time part of the Zingerman’s ecosystem. About a year ago, Robin turned me onto some newly available single-origin peanuts from Virginia. I wasn’t really on the lookout for a new source. We’ve long been happy with the high-quality peanuts we’ve been buying for decades now. That all changed when I tasted the new ones—they were so darned delicious! I’m not normally a big peanut eater, but I found myself reaching back in the can over and over again to have a few more! A year down the road, those amazing peanuts are debuting this week at the Roadhouse! The flavor, and the story behind them, have absolutely enhanced the energy in my internal ecosystem. I forecast they will have a similarly positive impact on yours!
The story behind Hubs peanuts.
The nuts come to us from the folks at Hubs, the third generation of the Hubbard family’s firm in Farmville, Virginia. Back in the mid-’50s, Dot Hubbard developed what’s evolved over the years into “the specialty peanut market.” She took the extra time to hand-select the largest peanuts from each local farm’s delivery and then dip them in hot water before blister-frying them in her kitchen. She and her husband, H.J., began shipping their peanuts by mail. Nearly 70 years later the company is run by their grandson, Marshall Rabil. Marshall has been working hard in recent years to take the company to new heights and he, like me, has an affinity for small, specialty experiments. I’m thrilled that Robin Kline cared enough to steer me so effectively to this one.
About the farmer, Elisha Barnes.
These single-origin peanuts are completely in line with our definition of quality, and epitomize our philosophical approach to food. They’re remarkably full-flavored—they have loads of complexity, balance, and finish. And they’re very traditional—this is the way high-quality peanuts would have tasted 100 years ago! They’re grown by Elisha Barnes, a fourth-generation farmer in Virginia. Barnes is beyond passionate about his peanut growing, and his connection to community, history, and the land. He’s been into it since he was a child: “The first time I got hooked on farming I was six years old.” Through farming and his upbringing, Barnes has developed a life philosophy that fits well with our own: “My father taught us how to treat people and how to be honest. He taught us integrity.” Both his passion and his principles are reflected in the excellence of the peanuts!
About Elisha’s 100-year-old approach to farming peanuts.
While Elisha Barnes’ farm isn’t certified organic, he uses no chemicals on the land. He harvests the peanuts using a 100-year-old picker, equipment he has had to modify regularly to make it work with his 50-year-old tractor. The peanuts are made particularly special because Barnes still uses the old way of curing them which is known as “shocking.” Just-dug nuts, left on the vine as they grew, are wrapped about around five-foot-high poles to sun-dry out in the field (think corn shocks). They’re left to cure for about six weeks before they’re brought in, cleaned, and brought to Hubs to get that patented blistering, roasting, and salting.
A hundred years ago, pretty much every peanut farmer worked this way. Today Elisha Barnes is the only one still doing it. It makes a big difference in the flavor. Barnes says, “It creates the sweetest, highest germination rate peanut there is. You see, [flash] drying takes out part of the germination quality, and it takes out the sweetness. It takes part of the quality out of the peanut. But I want to keep that.” In the spirit of a holistic internal ecosystem, Barnes says,
Tilling the soil, it teaches a spiritual lesson. Do your part, invest in the land and the land will give you an increase. We are a fourth-generation farm. My father, my grandfather, my great-grandfather all farmed peanuts. I am right now the only farmer anywhere around that actively shocks peanuts like this. … It’s rewarding. It’s an honor. Who would’ve ever thought that the son of a sharecropper would be standing on the land that he now owns and farming peanuts the way that my father and his father did. That speaks volumes for me.
I am indebted to Hubs for coming on board with me and allowing me to be able to raise this and allow it to be financially beneficial so that I can continue to do this growing. Hubs hopes the single-sourced specialty peanut will remind people of their roots. It has already given one farmer exactly what he needs! My daughter says that I’m a dinosaur that refuses to die. The chapters of my life will close with me farming the way I want to farm.
Aside from all the work on growing peanuts, supporting Elisha Barnes in this way is also a small step toward helping to restore Black farmers to the land. Today, in 2023, Black farmers account for only 10 percent of what Black farmers owned and worked a century ago. Barnes says, “Southampton County, at the turn of the century, was primarily Black-owned.” Today Barnes is one of only a few Black farmers left working local lands. A couple years ago, Barnes and his oldest brother bought back his father’s 52-acre spread in Courtland. He says proudly, “This past year, I raised peanuts on the family farm for the first time in 30 years.”
Elisha Barnes says of his commitment to these traditional techniques of farming, “Maybe just maybe I’ll inspire somebody to take just a little bit of this old history and keep it alive.” I’m pretty confident his hope will be fulfilled many times over in the coming years. Swing by the Roadhouse soon and enjoy some of these amazing peanuts soon! Flavor is big, but supplies are limited!