Clemson researcher feeds restaurants, farms with long-lost crop
CHARLESTON — Clemson University researcher Brian Ward has revived the South’s ancestral peanut, successfully germinating nearly 1 million Carolina African runner seeds from just 20.
The heirloom crop offers a niche but valuable product for South Carolina growers and restaurants. Last year’s heavy rains and floods cut yields dramatically, Ward said, but the long-lost African runners, once highly valued for their oil and distinctive taste, were nursed enough that they’re ready for larger tests on farms and at other Clemson research stations throughout the state.
“We have to validate its yield on a commercial scale. That’s what we’ll be doing this year. I’m feeling pretty confident,” said Ward, a research specialist at the Clemson Coastal Research and Education Center (REC) near Charleston.
Working with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, Ward was given what is considered to be half of the world’s remaining Carolina African runner peanut seeds three years ago. From those 20 seeds, he grew plants and harvested 1,250 seeds the first year and has continued to build supply the past three years.
The nonprofit Carolina Gold Rice Foundation is a partnership of private industry, educators and agricultural researchers, including Ward and others at the Coastal REC. The group is focused on the restoration and preservation of heirloom grains with deep roots in South Carolina history. Chefs and growers regularly attend the foundation’s meetings.
Noted Lowcountry Chef Forrest Parker of the Old Village Post House in Mount Pleasant credited the group’s restoration of the Carolina African runner peanut and other heirloom grains with giving unique flavor to the Lowcountry’s bustling tourism and hospitality industry.
“They’re really at the forefront of agricultural research that’s going on right now, and I think that continues to be one of the things that sets the dining scene in Charleston apart from many other places in the United States,” said Parker, who was named a 2016 S.C. Chef Ambassador by Gov. Nikki Haley and has prepared dishes with the first African runners harvested at the Clemson University Coastal REC. “The reintroduction of the Sea Island red pea, the purple cane sugar that’s been largely thought extinct that’s now being returned to us in the Lowcountry; those are fantastic stories. They’re fantastic flavors that people can’t just experience elsewhere. They’re going to have to come here.”
Sumter County grower Nat Bradford is one of five South Carolina farmers who will plant Carolina African runner seeds this year. Bradford previously worked with the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation on the restoration of his family’s lost Bradford watermelon, which has been greatly received by South Carolina chefs. He also grows collards, okra, an ancient wheat called emmer and cover crops to harvest as what he calls “green manure” to be used as fertilizer for his prized Bradfords.
Bradford, a Clemson alumnus, comes from a long line of South Carolina farmers but works as a landscape architect. While passionate about farming and horticulture, he had never farmed until the past few years. He said he could have never afforded the capital investment required of traditional row crop farming. The restoration of the Bradford watermelon and now the Carolina African runner peanut offers a niche product for a niche market and a real business opportunity for small-scale farmers.
“This heirloom food movement and reconnecting with historic foodways, this has given me an opportunity to break into agriculture, which I have loved since I was little,” Bradford said. “To have something that hasn’t been grown in so many, many decades, to be part of the revival of lost foods and getting people excited about foods and their histories… I’m elated.”
In addition to harvesting seeds as part of the restoration process, Bradford plans to experiment with recipes, perhaps pairing his Bradford watermelon molasses with Carolina African runner peanuts in candy.
“I’m sure we’ll experiment with cold-pressing them for their oil. I think it’s an all-around good peanut. You can roast it. You can boil it. We’re going to experiment with different products, too,” Bradford said.
Carolina Gold Rice Foundation Chairman and food historian David Shields found the last remaining African runner peanut seeds several years ago in a cold-storage facility at North Carolina State University. He requested seeds be sent to Ward. Ward received 20 seeds without knowing at that time they accounted for half of the world’s remaining African runner peanut seeds.
“One of the issues with these heirloom crops is they all were developed before industrial ag. Brian Ward is an expert in organic cultivation. That’s the closest thing to pre-industrial ag. The seed has not been grown out in any scale since the 1930s. It’s only with Brian Ward’s work in the fields now that it is coming back,” Shields said. “Those old crops are drought-tolerant. They were produced when (petroleum-based) fertilizers weren’t added to the soils. They also had a fair amount of genetic diversity.”
Flavor is the heirloom peanut’s greatest attribute, though, Shields said, and the reason chefs like Parker are paying attention.
Ward said the peanut also could find a larger commercial market for its oil, which can be used for cooking or in peanut butter.
The Carolina African runner peanut is about two-thirds the size of modern runner peanuts typically used in candies. The versatile nut dates to the 17th century, said Shields, a professor at the University of South Carolina. Southern chefs and cooks favored it for roasting and grinding into meal, and Carolina African peanut oil was so desirable it frequently was used in soaps and exported, Shields said. A delicacy, the nut began to slip from favor during the Great Depression, however, giving way to newer varieties with larger seeds.
This year, African runner peanuts will be grown at five South Carolina farms, the Edisto Research and Education Center and the Pee Dee Research and Education Center to build seed supply and test the crop’s productivity in different environments.
“We just completed our third year with this peanut,” Ward said. “I think by our fifth year, you should start seeing it in restaurants and you might see some bigger growers plant it in a couple years. It’s just got a really good flavor.”
Ward’s restoration of the Carolina African runner peanut was funded by the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, Glenn Roberts and Anson Mills, and the South Carolina Peanut Board, a farmer-led organization dedicated to industry advancement.
Clemson’s Coastal Research and Education Center is one of five research farms across the state working to improve profitability of the state’s No. 1 industry, agriculture and forestry, which generates $41.7 billion for the state’s economy. In addition to private partnerships with groups like the S.C. Peanut Board, Anson Mills and the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, the research stations receive investments from the state.
“What will continue to set the Charleston dining scene apart is the many contributions from Dr. Brian Ward or Dr. Merle Shepard (also of Clemson University’s Coastal REC) or Dr. David Shields from the University of South Carolina; all of the research they’re doing through the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation into reintroducing and restoring these lost signatures of South Carolina history,” Parker said.