Shocking Truth About Virginia’s Peanuts

An old-school farming method returns…and yields spectacular results.

Kyle LaFerriere

Elisha Barnes

The world’s oldest peanut looks puny and unassuming as it rests in a display case at the Isle of Wight County Museum in Smithfield. The man who harvested it, Pembroke D. Gwaltney Sr., wrote “1890” on the smoothest side and saved it as a promotional tool for his business, one of Virginia’s earliest peanut processing plants.

Discolored and dried out, this goober ain’t much. But as a symbol of the Commonwealth’s long relationship with one very special legume, this fellow seems absolutely perfect. U.S. peanuts fall into four basic types: Runner, Spanish, Valencia, and Virginia. It’s only fitting that the world’s oldest specimen, as museum curator Rachel Popp confirms, is a Virginia Peanut.

“We can’t compete with Georgia when it comes to the number of acres,” says Dell Cotton, executive secretary of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association. “They produce half the peanuts in the country, so we’re a drop in the bucket compared to them. But one thing we do have that no one else can lay claim to is the history.”

Virginia wasn’t just the first in the nation to grow peanuts, it was the first to commercialize and turn the ‘nut into an industry. The oversized Virginia Peanut variety is acknowledged as the tastiest, the crunchiest, the best—it’s the peanut we enjoy at the ballpark. “You can credit the sandy soil. That’s what peanuts need,” says Cotton, whose association represents hundreds of farmers in the state. “The atmosphere and where they grow tend to lead to very flavorful, crunchy peanuts. We grow all types, but the majority of the production is Virginia Peanuts.”

“I still am amazed at what we are able to do with something as simple as a peanut,” says Elisha Barnes, 66, who grows Virginia Peanuts and is an active link to the world’s oldest survivor. “It all depends on the weather. This past year was a good year. I averaged 4,800 pounds of peanuts per acre, which is good for me but doesn’t compare to the other farmers because I don’t put the chemicals in the land that they do.”

Kyle LaFerriere

Elisha Barnes


Barnes is a fourth-generation Virginia farmer who, from his Pop Son Farm in the Southampton County hamlet of Branchville, still preserves the farming methods of his forebears. In addition to peanuts, he raises natural watermelons, sweet corn, butterbeans, cantaloupes, and tomatoes. “We came from a sharecropping environment. It wasn’t designed for the laborer to advance. But we made it. People wondered how my father, who only got to the fifth grade and had to drop out to work in the fields, could put six children through college on a little small farm.”

It was peanuts. Barnes, also a longtime pastor, says, “It was how you made your living. Peanuts allowed people to buy farms, send their kids to college. It’s amazing what the peanut was able to do for the local community.”

Elisha Barnes

Barnes says that it’s more than likely that the world’s oldest peanut was harvested using a now-discontinued curing method called shocking, or stacking. It’s when the freshly dug nuts, still on the vine, are carefully wrapped around vertical poles to dry. Shocked peanuts look like a field of mounds, most about five feet high. 

Around the turn of the 20th century, most farmers shocked their peanuts. Now, faster modern methods of flash-drying are used to the same end. Shocking is more time-consuming, more labor-intensive, but Barnes still farms the old way because he thinks that it matters. 

“It creates the sweetest, highest germination rate peanut there is,” he says. “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.”

Barnes had one problem. As delicious—and arguably superior—as his output was, he could never really capitalize on his relatively small crop. “I couldn’t sell them because by the time I got mine picked after shocking, the market had closed—there is a window of time you have to sell. And this process takes way longer, up to six weeks longer.”

But Barnes kept shocking, giving the peanuts away or taking them home for him and his wife of 45 years, Jaqueline, to enjoy. But mainly he used them to feed his (happy) hogs. “My daughter calls me a dinosaur. She says, ‘Daddy, you are a dinosaur that refuses to die.’ But this is what I grew up with, and it preserves where we came from, what got us here. I tell everybody if you have a passion for something, you’ll make room for it.” 


SINGLE ORIGIN

Marshall Rabil is in his office at Hubbard’s Peanuts, a.k.a. Hubs, talking about the illustrious history of the company founded by his grandmother, Dot Hubbard, back in 1954. “She would handpick the largest of Virginia Peanuts,” the director of sales and marketing says. “What we would call ‘super extra large.’ And she used a recipe from local lore and commercialized it, at first cooking small batches at home.”

He gets a mischievous look on his face. “Wanna try something?” he asks, unwrapping a piece of metal foil and passing it along. “Try it,” he says. “It’s just a prototype.” 

Inside are broken up bits of melt-in-your-throat dark chocolate candy dotted with incredibly sweet crunchy peanuts. Not just any peanuts, mind you. Elisha Barnes’ peanuts.

Last year, Hubs released an exclusive “Single Origin” peanut line using just the shocked peanuts grown on Barnes’ farm. It was only 7,000 pounds of peanuts but the batch sold out within 24 hours. And now comes this sinful creation, a collaboration with the Little Rock, Arkansas’ Kyya specialty chocolate company, due for release later in 2022 (the chocolate is from a single origin grower in Uganda). “Elisha’s is such a unique story,” Rabil says. “There are so many people around the country that have not experienced how good a peanut can taste.”

It’s only right that the company that launched the novel idea of gourmet Virginia Peanuts would want to go back to the basics.

Kyle LaFerriere

Hubs Peanuts Marshall Rabil

“My mom was really the first to do a gift-quality peanut that shipped by mail order,” says Lynne Rabil, the president of Hubs, and Marshall’s mom. She’s standing in the middle of what used to be Dot Hubbard’s kitchen, a shoe closet-sized space now used as an office. Here, the former schoolteacher and mother of four started cooking hand-selected nuts in coconut oil nearly 70 years ago, selling at first in local stores. 

“It all started with Hubs,” says Dell Cotton. “They were the first gourmet Virginia Peanut. For a while, they were the only ones. There’s probably 25 or 30 companies in Virginia now.”

Dot and her husband, H.J., were a good team as Hubs grew from an at-home business in the small village of Sedley to a brisk mail order operation. “My dad built and designed all of the equipment trying to get a larger volume out of what we produced,” Lynne says. 

The original house has been greatly expanded over the years, and now includes administrative offices and large warehouse and assembly line spaces where workers prepare, cook, and package Hubs brand peanuts. On a Tuesday in March, two dozen workers are filling specially packaged cans for the Wegmans grocery chain. “We’re their private label brand,” Marshall says, leading a tour through the labyrinthian assembly line, custom designed by his grandfather. It can handle 10,000 pounds of large legumes on a busy day. 

The continuous cooking process is a steady flowing chain of sifting out runts and debris, soaking in water, frying in coconut oil, and then flavoring. “The water creates a membrane around the peanut so that when it’s fried, it produces a crunch.” Is there a secret ingredient to the uniquely sweet taste? “The water in Sedley,” Rabil says. “I really believe that.”

The company’s foray into small batch specialties, like Barnes’ Single Origin peanuts, is part of a larger campaign to highlight Virginia products and traditions. In Franklin, 20 miles from Hubs HQ, the company has opened The Hubs Vine, a combination restaurant and Virginia-themed gift shop in a refurbished Farm Fresh grocery store. It’s also where Hubs will store its products and begin “chocolating” their peanuts—coating them with chocolate—thanks to a newly purchased enrober. Previously, they had outsourced this part of the process.

“I want Hubs to do more tie-ins with Virginia history,” says Rabil, “whether it’s working with local restaurants on a recipe or developing these special small batches.”

Barnes says that he kept offering his shocked peanuts to many of the boutique nut companies sprouting up across the region, but with no success. “I approached Hubs as a last-ditch effort to maintain what I’d been doing. They were the end of the line.” 

The single origin peanut is marketed as a limited quantity, he says, “because I can’t go out and plant 100 acres of this.” In 2021, he planted eight acres. “This year I want to get up to 15.” Barnes’ summer crop will be sold by Hubs in February.


Kyle LaFerriere

On the farm

“ANTIQUATED” 

Shocking is so out of fashion that even the peanut experts at Virginia Tech’s Tidewater Agricultural and Extension Center—the breeding and testing facilities for Virginia Peanuts and other regional agriculture crops—don’t know what it is. “I personally never heard of this, meaning we did not look at this in the past 15 years of research,” writes Maria Balota, Virginia’s state peanut specialist. “Nor do I recall seeing [publications] on it or past research documents.”

Her “peanut colleague,” Sean O’Keefe, at Tech’s Department of Food Science and Technology, also says he’s never heard of shocking.

When I tell Elisha Barnes, he enjoys a hearty laugh. “Modern technology doesn’t teach the old ways. I’m the only one still doing it, so there isn’t much area of comparison. My methods are … what’s that word .… antiquated?” 

The process starts with preparing the land, chopping with a hoe. “People don’t see that anymore, people laugh at it,” he says. Then there’s pests and different types of fungus that harm the peanut. “When I was growing up, the diseases that they have now did not exist, like white mold and sclerotinia. But when you kill off certain things in the land, other things can strengthen and sprout.”

The key is to keep the ground stirred up with a tractor plow, to increase the airflow, and keep the land dried out. “The peanut is a dry weather crop,” Barnes says. “It grows best in the less humid air.” 

Planting begins sometime in early May and requires constant supervision for pests and fungus. When it’s time to start getting the nuts out of the ground, sometime in September or October, Barnes uses his new, two-row diggers to dig them up and drop them back on the ground gently. He modified the equipment so that the peanuts won’t flip over when dug. “You want that nut to come out and sit back on the ground. When you begin to shock the peanut you actually want the nut on the underside of the vine because you want the water to drain off rather than permeating through it. If you don’t do it that way, you’ll have a problem with mold and rot.” 

It’s then that Barnes, his son Andre, 41, and a team of workmen will dig hundreds of holes and stake them, hanging the peanut vines to dry for six weeks. “They look like beached walruses out there on the field,” he laughs.  

After drying, the crew will feed the peanuts into a 1933 stationary picker and carry them to a trailer under shelter and wait until Wakefield Peanut Company can shell them. “Once that happens, Hubs starts their process,” says Barnes, who says he’s grown peanuts this way for 30 years “and could hardly sell a peanut.” But once he hooked up with Marshall and Lynne Rabil, “it’s been over-the-top ever since.”

The partnership has earned Barnes the title of “the peanut man,” and made him the breakout star of a 2019 PBS documentary, The Virginia Peanut Story. Thanks to the promotion of the Single Origin line, he’s been asked to talk in schools and to make appearances at community farmers markets and agricultural conferences. “Most of the farmers around are delighted to see this old stuff being done. It preserves history,” he says. Most recently, he was the guide to the peanut farm, working with old equipment, at the Southampton Ag and Forestry Museum’s Down Home Day, and using the kind of archaic farming equipment that would’ve dug up the world’s oldest peanut. 

“When Hubs partnered with me and put my peanuts out in the world,” he says, “it has been nothing short of a blessing and a miracle because people are receiving it. I’ve had people stop on the side of the road when I was shocking my peanuts.” One gray-haired lady of advanced age cried like a two-year-old child, Barnes recalls. “She was so proud to see peanuts being shocked the way she once knew.”

Barnes bought his 32-acre farm in 1989, but two years ago, he and his oldest brother bought back his father’s 52-acre spread in Courtland, which had fallen into other hands. Barnes has 16 acres there. “And this past year,” the peanut man says proudly, “I raised peanuts on the family farm for the first time in 30 years.”


Virginia Peauts in a Nutshell

Courtesy of the Virginia Peanut Board come 16 peanut producers, many homegrown on family farms and roasted using time-tested recipes. 

Appomattox River Peanut and Wine Company, Hopewell

The area’s only peanut processor offers a large selection of seasoned peanuts like Crabshack, BBQ on Fire, Jalapeño, and Garlic; specialty chocolates; imported and domestic premium wines; and made-to-order gift baskets. AppomattoxPeanuts.com

Belmont Peanuts, Courtland

Artisan collection includes Butter Toffee Maple Bourbon, All-American Dill Pickle, as well as Keto peanuts and more. BelmontPeanuts.com

Feridies, Courtland

Feridies Peanut Patch Gift Shop offers gourmet nuts, peanut candies, snack and trail mixes, along with Virginia ham and country ham. Feridies.com

The Good Earth Peanut Company, Skippers

A small operation started in 1989, Good Earth offers an assortment of nuts grown on their family farm, as well as preserves, sauces, and salsa. GoodEarthPeanuts.com

Hampton Farms, Franklin

Known for their in-shell ballpark peanuts along with gourmet shelled flavors like Honey Sriracha, Sea Salt & Cracked Black Pepper, and Southern Barbecue, this 100-year-old roaster also offers Chocolate Covered Peanut Brittle and farm-fresh peanut butter. HamptonFarms.com 

Hope & Harmony Farms, Wakefield

With a motto of “quality, tradition, goodness,” everything—from the “super extra-large” peanuts roasted and seasoned by hand to in-the-shell raw peanuts—always tastes terrific. HopeAndHarmonyFarms.com

Hubs Peanut Company, Sedley

The company that started it all in 1954, Hubs offers traditional and chocolate-covered peanuts, a peanut club for monthly gifts, and Elisha Barnes’ limited-edition Single Origin peanuts. HubsPeanuts.com

Newsoms Peanut Shop

Family-owned and operated by the Bunn family in Southampton County, Newsoms HQ is where the soils offer ideal conditions for growing the largest and tastiest peanuts. Freshly cooked and delivered. NewsomsPeanutShop.com

Parker’s Peanuts, Courtland

U.S. Air Force LT. Colonel Fred Parker began production on the family farm in Southeastern Virginia, using the family’s original recipe, roasting “delicious, unique and crunchy peanuts in pure peanut oil.” ParkersPeanuts.com

The Peanut Shop of Williamsburg, Toano

Traditional salted peanuts plus seasoned varieties like Bacon and Cheddar, Hot Wasabi Spiced Peanuts, Savory Dill Pickle Nuts, and Crab Town Nuts with Chesapeake Bay Seasoning. ThePeanutShop.com

Plantation Peanut Company, Wakefield

These gourmet peanuts are roasted by hand in small batches so they’re fresh and cooked to order—no warehousing involved. PlantationPeanuts.com

Taste Peanuts, multiple locations

This popular sandwich shop has its own line of peanuts. Four locations in Virginia Beach, as well as Chesapeake, Norfolk, Pungo, Suffolk, and Richmond. TasteUnlimited.com 

Virginia Diner, Wakefield

This widely available brand offers flavors ranging from Savage Raging Inferno, Sweet Onion, Sriracha & Honey Roasted, Old Bay, Street Taco, Dark Chocolate, Butter Toasted, and more. VaDiner.com

Virginia Heritage Foods, Ashland

Sourced from homegrown fresh ingredients, this Ashland-based company’s products include chutneys, marinades, and sauces along with, of course, peanuts. VaHeritageFoods.com

Wakefield Peanut Company 

Proudly certified as one of “Virginia’s Finest,” the gourmet Virginia peanuts here are grown on local farms and cooked on-site. Look for roasted peanuts in the shell and a variety of nuts and gifts. WakefieldPeanutCo.com

Whitley’s Peanuts, multiple locations

With locations in Gloucester, Williamsburg, and Richmond, Whitley’s has been producing gourmet peanuts, some with flavors like Wasabi Ginger and Dill Pickle, along with peanut confections, since 1986. WhitleysPeanut.com


This article originally appeared in the August 2022 issue.

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