Mr. Peanut goes to Africa to train cashew farmers

Planters, the century-old nut company best known for dry roasted peanuts, is teaching sustainable farming to cashew farmers in Africa.

Planters, the century-old nut company best known for its dry roasted peanuts, is teaching sustainable farming to cashew farmers in Africa. I talked recently with Steve Dumas, Planters’ senior associate brand manager and sustainability lead.

Tell me about Planters’ history of sustainability.

Sustainability has always been embedded in the brand. It’s the reason our name is Planters in the first place: We work with farmers, or the planters.

I never realized that’s why it’s called Planters.

Most people don’t.

When was Planters founded?

1906. Sustainability has always been important to us. We think of the farmers as the original environmentalists. They know that keeping the land healthy is important to their future. In essence, they are living our definition of sustainability, which is meeting the current needs while being mindful of future generations.

We look at this as a sustainability journey. It’s not like “mission accomplished;” we think about it as an ongoing thing.

I understand you’re working with African cashew farmers.

We’re a founding member of the African Cashew Initiative, and we also work with the African Cashew Alliance and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. We’ve all come together to improve the livelihood of African farmers. Africa is the largest producer of cashews in the world. They employ 2.5million farmers.

Does Planters have a market there?

We don’t sell cashews there.

Do you sell any nuts in Africa?

Not that I’m aware of. We’re looking to support the farmers. To date we’ve educated over 60,000 farmers on how to improve the yield of their crop. Our goal is to reach 150,000 farmers. These farmers actually have pretty large families, so you’re helping the families and helping entire communities. I was in Mozambique, and we started filming a documentary to raise awareness of this. One guy I met, Rosario, has nine children. His own father wasn’t able to send any of his kids to school, and thanks to cashews, he’s able to send all his kids to school.

We visited the school, of 900 students in two sessions. We asked the kids, “Do any of you have parents who are cashew farmers,” and about half of them rose their hands. You start infusing money in these communities, and it makes such a difference

What are you teaching them to improve yield?

How to get more trees, create cashew nurseries, implement better agricultural practices.

What percentage of your cashews come from Africa?

I don’t have the exact number. In prior years we weren’t able to procure any. This is the first year. We’re committed to procuring over $20 million over the next few years.

Where did they come from before?

The other big countries are Brazil and India.

What kind of improvements have you made on the production side, in terms of sustainability?

We've been doing a lot behind the scenes.

  • There’s peanut breeding—you cross-pollinate to try to create strains that are more disease resistant so you use less pesticides.
  • Precision agriculture—we’re starting to use a lot of computers and satellites to optimize crop development. They put sensors on the field that track nutrient levels and moisture levels, so you can be more precise in how you use resources.
  • When the nuts come into our plants, we increase our port of entry inspection. Quality is very important to us, and not every nut that comes in is suitable. So we weed out those that aren’t suitable before we process them, and we use those elsewhere, like for animal feed or fertilizer, so we’re not wasting them.
  • Our Suffolk, Va., plant achieved zero waste to landfill status this year.
  • Our Fort Smith, Ark., plant is doing things like steam treating, which cleans the nuts with just steam, so you don’t have to use chemicals.
  • Our water consumption at Fort Smith decreased 40 percent.
  • We installed a railroad at our plant to transport nuts from the farm, which takes trucks off the highways.

Is your roasting process the same as it’s always been?

In short, we’re experts in roasting. There’s a lot of science behind it. Every different nut is roasted a little differently. Based on where it comes from, it gets roasted differently. Peanuts grown in Virginia have different moisture content than peanuts grown in Texas.

What are some health trends in nuts?

Health and wellness is hugely important to us. One of the Planters lines is NUT-rition, which is health-focused. There’s an omega three mix, an antioxidant mix… all geared toward health.

Another example: Our straight dry roasted peanuts from the jar--we added a heart health logo on it. As we see more and more consumers interested in health, we hope it helps people realize how healthy nuts are.

Macadamia nuts aren’t that great for you, right?

I wouldn’t put it that way. They have different health properties. Clearly almonds have gotten a lot of press, peanuts are getting their turn in the spotlights, pistachios are good for you, walnuts are good for you, they all have their own nutrition profile.

We’re trying to do a better job sharing this. Mr. Peanut has his own Facebook page. You can friend him. He’s up to 150,000 fans. When the cashew documentary goes live, that will be updated on Facebook.

Has Mr. Peanut changed at all through the years?

He started in 1916, so he’s been around a while himself. He’s evolved. I wouldn't say he’s really changed. What’s really important is that he reflects our brand values. Sustainability is important to us, so it’s important to Mr. Peanut.

Mozambique cashew photos: Steve Dumas

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