BLAKELY, GA. — More than half a century ago, residents of rural Early County erected a stone monument topped by an oversized peanut on the courthouse square here as a tribute to the region's signature product.
In this self-proclaimed Peanut Capital of the World, people credit peanuts with the area's growth and prosperity. But now they fear the fallout from the salmonella outbreak -- which has been linked to eight deaths and 575 illnesses in 43 states and has prompted nationwide recalls of more than 1,000 food products -- will have a devastating effect on their livelihood.
"Peanuts have been the cornerstone of our rural community," said Hilary Halford, president of the Blakely-Early County Chamber of Commerce. "We grew up here with the nostalgic smell of peanuts. . . . It's a way of life here, and it would be devastating if there is a long-term impact from this."
Farmers, already hit hard by high fuel costs, said contracts for next season's crop have been slow coming in from processing companies and manufacturers, leaving them unable to determine how many, if any, peanuts to plant in May.
Most of the approximately 50 employees at the Blakely peanut processing plant owned by Peanut Corp. of America -- which the Food and Drug Administration has pinpointed as the source of the salmonella outbreak -- have been laid off, exacerbating unemployment in an area already hurt by the recession.
"We're in hot water," Blakely Mayor Ric Hall said of the county, where the median household income is about $26,000 a year. "We're already struggling with high poverty and a struggling agricultural economy, and this will impact not just our community, but this entire region of the state."
Though Hall said Peanut Corp. was a "small niche" player in the peanut industry, the controversy has cast a shadow over the town that has long taken pride in its peanut production. The shutdown, the mayor said, has come at a time when Georgia-Pacific, the county's largest employer, is laying off at least 100 workers from its paper production plant.
"That's a total of about 150 to 170 people who have lost their jobs," said Hall. "Being the small agricultural community that we are, the prospect of finding new employment is virtually impossible. People here don't have much, and the layoffs make it even more devastating."
As national attention has focused on Blakely, the county seat with about 5,700 people, leaders have tried to paint a positive picture of the region. Three other peanut plants in the county, they point out, have had no problems.
Still, the massive food recall, which the FDA said was the largest in memory, worries many South Georgia communities such as Blakely, where the peanut industry is central to the economy. Georgia produces 45% of the nation's peanuts, according to the Georgia Peanut Commission.
"Everybody is looking at us thinking that we are unsanitary people, and we're not," said John Freeman, a 19-year-old college student who earns money during the summer shelling and loading peanuts. "One company shouldn't put a label on the whole town."
Others have expressed anger at Peanut Corp. for tainting a $2-billion-a-year industry they say is committed to producing safe products. The Lynchburg, Va.-based company is accused of knowingly shipping bulk quantities of salmonella-contaminated products -- dry-roasted and oil-roasted peanuts, granulated peanuts, peanut meal, peanut butter and peanut paste -- and is now at the center of a criminal investigation by the FDA and the Justice Department.
"We've got an industry that has a good track record, and now we have a small processor that did something wrong and caused chaos for everyone," said Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission. "Because of this, farmers are having a difficult time obtaining peanut contracts for 2009, consumers are confused, and the ripple effect is being felt throughout the peanut industry. This is unconscionable."
Hall, the mayor of Blakely, is hoping that the peanut scare will subside, just as fears have over other recalled foods.
"When they found salmonella in spinach, peppers and tomatoes, people said they would never eat them again, and guess what? We're right back in there eating salads," Hall said. "I think the same thing will happen with peanuts."