Wakefield, Sussex County

Sussex County

Any discussion about Virginia  peanuts needs to start with a clarification between Virginia peanuts and Virginia Peanuts. The lowercase former refers to peanuts grown in the Commonwealth; the capitalized latter is one of four peanut cultivars grown in the United States. If you’ve ever cracked a peanut out of a shell at a baseball game, that was a Virginia Peanut. Virginia Peanuts can be peanuts from Virginia, of course, but they’re also grown across the Southeast.

While Virginia Peanuts make up just 15% of total American peanut production, they’re known across the industry as the gold standard for size and quality. The vast majority of American-grown peanuts are the cultivar known as Runner Peanuts, often used in peanut butter and confections. 

Virginia ranks eighth in the country for peanut production, with Commonwealth growers planting approximately 28,000 acres of peanuts in 2022, according to the Virginia Peanut Growers Association (VPGA). Nearly all of them are Virginia Peanuts, with some Runner Peanuts mixed in, and the vast majority are grown in a group of nine cities and counties in the southeastern part of the Commonwealth. Virginia is the northernmost peanut-growing state  and among the most efficient, producing 4,500 pounds of nuts per acre in 2022, trailing only Arkansas, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture data.

A Reputation for Size, Flavor, and Crunch

Virginia Peanuts are often sold in premium packaging, at premium prices, in gift baskets and tins. Hubbard Peanut Company’s Hubs peanuts are one of the most prominent premium varieties, and founder Dot Hubbard pioneered the production of gourmet peanuts in the 1950s through a process that started with blanching the nuts in water before cooking.

It didn’t take long for business to take off. Word of the delicious nuts began to spread and a mail-order business took shape, with the nuts sold in gift shops, clubs, hotels, and restaurants across the country. Food writers as prominent as legendary critic Craig Claiborne of The New York Times took notice, and an industry was born.

In 2020, Hubbard expanded into a 58,000-sq.-ft. manufacturing, shipping,  and retail space in the city of Franklin with about 70 permanent employees — not including the seasonal workers the company takes on to fulfill the Christmas rush, when its products are in high demand as gifts.

“Virginia is to peanuts what the Napa Valley is to wine,” Hubbard Co-Owner Marshall Rabil said. “Our nuts may not be as sexy as wine, but we’re part of every party.”

Hubbard Peanut Company, Franklin

Hubbard Peanut Company, Franklin

There From the Start

Native to South America, peanuts were grown only on a small scale until the  mid-19th century. That’s when Dr. Matthew Harris cultivated the country’s first known commercial peanut crop in Sussex County, near the town of Waverly. The area’s warm climate and sandy, loamy soil proved to be an ideal environment for the plant, and Virginia quickly took the lead in American peanut production. 

The Commonwealth’s enduring contributions to the industry didn’t end there. In 1902, Southampton County farmer Benjamin Hicks received a patent for the first gas-powered peanut picker, which revolutionized production by stemming and cleaning the nuts. 

The biggest, most familiar name in American peanuts entered the Virginia peanut industry not long after that. In 1913, Planters Nut and Chocolate Company moved to the city of Suffolk, known as “The Peanut Capital of the World.” The company’s iconic Mr. Peanut mascot was created by a local child, Antonio Gentile, and a statue of the mascot has stood in downtown Suffolk since 1991.

Now owned by Hormel Foods, Planters employs approximately 400 people at its Suffolk facility. “When I interview people for jobs, they often tell me they want to work here because their grandfather or their grandmother worked here,” said Cara Dunfee, human relations manager at Hormel in Suffolk. The plant produces 126 nut-based products, ranging from trail mix to deluxe cashews. 

Virginia is to peanuts what the Napa Valley is to wine. Our nuts may not be as sexy as wine, but we’re part of every party.

Marshall Rabil Co-Owner, Hubbard Peanut Company

The Taste of Virginia

The Virginia Diner began its peanut journey a few years later. The company started out in a railroad car in the Sussex County town of Wakefield, just a few miles down U.S. 460 from Waverly. At the time, founder D’Earcy Davis was focused on fried chicken, hot biscuits, and vegetable soup. 

U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service

U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Agriculture Statistics Service

Before long, customers became so enamored with the free peanut snacks Davis handed out to guests that the company began to switch gears. In the late 1940s, it started to pack and sell peanuts from the restaurant. That ultimately evolved into Virginia Diner, the peanut manufacturer (and restaurant, although it operates out of a traditional building instead of a rail car). Instead of dry roasting, Virginia Diner peanuts are blister roasted, or soaked in warm water before roasting, giving the finished product a unique texture and crunch.

Andrew Whisler, chief operating officer  of Virginia Diner, says the company does most of its sales via mail order — like Hubs, mostly between October and December as holiday gifts to customers around the world. Around mid-October, when the company’s holiday sales reach their peak, even Whisler will join the front lines and help pack peanut orders.

“Come holiday time, no one has a job title around here,” he said. “We all share in the work together, wearing multiple hats to ensure shipments get out on time and every customer leaves completely satisfied with their experience.”

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