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New grading system could aid peanut growers

This is the copy of an X-ray used to grade peanuts.

This is the copy of an X-ray used to grade peanuts.

ALBANY, Ga. -- Grading peanuts is involved, expensive, destructive and not always accurate. And the last time a significant change was made in the way peanuts are graded was in 1957, according to Hank Sheppard, an agricultural engineer with National Research Labs in Dawson.

"Every single load of peanuts is evaluated for quality, which will include ratio of hulls against sound mature kernels, moisture level, foreign material and damage," Sheppard said.

According to Sheppard, the commonly used current grading system includes as many as 16 probes being made with a pneumatic device to take samples from a trailer, wagon or other conveyance.

The sample then requires three to six people operating six separate machines to determine the overall grade.

"It takes anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes to complete that sample," Sheppard said. "It's labor intensive."

In addition to the time and labor involved, Sheppard said the testing process damages the samples, and so farmers receive only a small fraction of their best price for those particular peanuts.

For several years, Sheppard has been working hard to develop a new and better system, based on the ability to see through the peanut samples using common X-rays, similar to the way a doctor might confirm a broken bone.

The newer process, when approved by the USDA, will take less than five minutes per load of peanuts and will require only one person to operate the equipment. By the evaluation of up to 256 possible shades of gray resulting from the tests, it can be determined whether an image is a hull, a rock or a peanut, and with no damage to the sample, Sheppard said.

The project began in earnest five years ago when an Albany group, including buyers, shellers and farmers, formed what came to be called the U.S. Grading Commission, Sheppard said. The idea was bring the current U.S. system of assigning peanut grades "into the 20th century,"

Spearheading the group was Bryan Willis, CEO of Damascus Peanut Company in Arlington.

"We (Damascus Peanut) bought a bunch of the old equipment about seven or eight years ago," Willis said, "and we were just tired of it. We said 'there's just got to be a better way than this.'"

According to Willis, his company already had a close relationship with a manufacturer of agricultural sorting equipment.

Willis made contact with Belgian Electronic Sorting Technology, or BEST Sort, looking for solutions. Ultimately, the concept of using X-rays to grade peanuts was settled upon.

"Those people from Belgium are some of the smartest I've ever met," Willis said. "In terms of food-related stuff, they're just very, very good."

Willis said he was fortunate to meet a man who was a West Coast representative for BEST and who understood the need to establish the dollar value of a commodity.

"Mike (the rep) assured me we could accomplish what I wanted," Willis said. "He turned to the guy from Belgium and said, 'This is how you do it -- bam bam bam -- just like that'."

The USDA is encouraged by the progress and success the system has shown so far.

However, in a report by the USDA-ARS (Ag Research Service), it observed that the system cannot address two key grading elements: damage and aflatoxin. Thus, alternative methods are being discussed.

According to Sheppard, aflatoxins are a group of potent toxins that can spring from a certain mold and are sometimes found on peanuts and cereal grains when stored under warm, damp conditions.

These toxins are known to have powerful cancer-causing properties, and if the mold is detected in the grading process it eliminates the entire load of peanuts from human consumption.

Sheppard said he and BEST Sort are aware of the issues involving damage and aflatoxins and are confident that sorting systems and adjustments to the system can be implemented to solve the problems.

Sheppard and Willis said they hope USDA approval will come by the end of next year, but they believe that the following year would be "more realistic."