Meet The Peanut Farmers and The Peanut Roasters

Marty and Donna Harper are peanut farmers. Betsy Owens, and her husband, Jack Lawrence, are peanut roasters. Beyond an affinity for this lowly legume, the couples have another connection: a patch of farmland in eastern North Carolina.

The Harpers both come from long lines of farmers. Marty’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all small-scale farmers. Donna’s family was the same: “I’m a Lenoir County farmer’s daughter. I swore I’d never marry one. Now I’m raising two.” Their sons, Brooks, 26, and Wes, 19, have also started farming.  

“A Chef’s Life” fans may recognize the Harpers from season one’s peanut episode. Donna showed Vivian how to make boiled peanuts. Before the lesson, Vivian and Donna walked through a peanut patch, which was actually Betsy Owens’ family farm. The Harpers, who have about 250 acres in production, have been renting Betsy’s family land since the late 1980s and started growing peanuts in the mid-2000s.

It was about then that Betsy and Jack ended up in the peanut roasting business. After a career as a mechanical engineer and a CEO, Jack retired. “He was my yard man for awhile but that didn’t work out,” said Betsy, who at the time worked for the N.C. Peanut Growers Association. “I introduced him to Virginia-type peanuts.”

Virginia peanuts have the largest kernels, making them ideal for roasting and as gourmet snacks. They are grown mainly in southeastern Virginia, northeastern North Carolina and South Carolina. With some experimentation, the couple came up with a recipe and started America’s Best Nut Co. Betsy joked,“He’s the brains and the cook. I do minimum wage labor.”

The couple now sells a full line of products: unsalted, Southern Homestyle, Bee-Line Honey Roasted, seasoned Wingnuts and Seanuts Sea Salted. Their peanuts are sold in a few food specialty stores and at their factory store, a converted fire station in Rocky Mount, N.C. They are also available online — prices start at about $7 for a 12-ounce tin.

Last year, Betsy was looking to sell her family homestead and the farmland, which has been in her family since 1844. Outside her relatives, Betsy had only one buyer in mind: “I had picked out Marty and his family because they would farm it.”

The next generation will do just that; the Harpers’ youngest son, Wes, bought the house and land.

More Information:

Boiled Peanuts
1 ½ pounds green, in-shell peanuts
1 ½ gallons water
1 cup salt

In an 8-quart pot, combine the peanuts, water, and salt. Bring it up to a low boil and cover. If the peanuts are perfectly green and immature, boiling them could take as little as an hour. If they are older, be prepared to boil away for up to 4 hours.

It’s important that all through the process the peanuts have plenty of water to bob around in, so feel comfortable adding more water as you need it. In the end you are looking for pliable shells and anywhere from al dente to soft peanuts--your preference.

Serve warm. Store leftover peanuts in their brine. They’ll keep, refrigerated in a sealed container for up to a week and in the freezer for up to a year.

Recipe from “Deep Run Roots: Stories & Recipes from My Corner of the South,” by Vivian Howard (Little, Brown and Company, 2016).