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Peanut official retires after 34 years

A man who's been involved in every major peanut policy change in the last three decades has retired. Russell Schools was recently inducted into the American Peanut Council's prestigious Peanut Hall of Fame.

Schools retired recently after a 34-year career as executive secretary of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association. The peanut grower group merged operations with the Peanut Grower Cooperative Marketing Association effective July 1.

In 1968, Schools was working as a Virginia Tech Extension farm management agent when Sen. William Rawlings, then head of the peanut grower group, “borrowed” him to help work out a new peanut program in Washington. At the time, peanut growers operated under an allotment.

Schools spent more than 60 days with the USDA's peanut and tobacco division, and came up with the two-price system to reduce government cost. The group hammered out details that helped growers, who were just beginning to experience huge leaps in yields per acre, maintain parity.

Parity had fallen to 75 percent due to increased yields and costs to the government program. Then-Agriculture Secretary Orville Freeman eventually granted 77.5 percent of parity, despite Congress' refusal to pass peanut legislation in 1968.

“Everybody was doing all they could to increase production per acre and it was increasing costs to the government,” Schools says. “We came up with a two-price system where a grower could receive a higher percentage of parity if they voluntarily reduced production.”

His work in 1968, which involved testimony before the House and Senate subcommittees, led to his appointment in March 1969 as executive secretary of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association.

His career has coincided with many of the program changes in peanuts during the past 30 years. He was chairman of the American Peanut Council, helped set up the National Peanut Council Foundation and served on export trade teams to Japan, Germany, Holland, England, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Italy, China, South Korea and Hong Kong. He also served as vice chairman and chairman of the Peanut Administrative Committee as well as vice chairman of the National Peanut Growers Group.

On the policy side, Schools saw and helped write the changes as they occurred.

“In 1977 Congress changed producers from acreage controls to quota, where you had to stay within acreage limits but could produce above quota as additionals. In 1981 Congress lifted the acreage limits and quota sold for a higher price and you could grow all the additional peanuts you wanted,” Schools says.

The quota and additional system was basically in place until the 2002 farm bill established a market-driven program.

He says he's most proud of his work in getting the buy-back provision as part of the previous peanut program. The provision gave shellers another avenue to buy peanuts in times of short supply and growers a chance to profit. “In the early years it worked out pretty well, until we got into a situation where the profit from our crop had to go elsewhere to cover losses in other parts of the country.”

Last year, Schools was also there battling against the changes that eventually became law. “Virginia and North Carolina didn't like the type of program that Congress finally came out with,” he says. “We liked the supply-management type program we had for many years. We were small and didn't have enough political pull” to influence the outcome of the new peanut program.

“To show that our feelings were correct, all you have to do is look at the peanut acreage in Virginia over the past two years,” Schools says. “Acreage declined to 57,000 last year and this year is down to 30,000 to 35,000. We said all along we couldn't live with this kind of a program.”

Still, Schools says it's now more important than ever for manufacturers, shellers and growers to work together “to make sure one segment of the industry is not put at a disadvantage. Producers are going to have to watch costs very closely because there's not as much profit in peanuts as there used to be. Peanuts will still be grown in Virginia, but by fewer growers on more acres.”

In retirement, Schools plans to continue his outdoorsman activities of hunting deer and turkey and fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. He and his wife, Fay, who's an artist, also plan to attend exhibits of her artwork. They have two sons and a daughter and two grandsons and two granddaughters. “We hunt, fish, and go to soccer, football and T-ball games. I'll probably wonder how I ever had enough time to work.”


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