Digging In

Prominent peanut farming family contributes to UGA Peanut Team in support of applied research

Gratitude and dedication to the peanut farming communities that helped build one family’s success has led them to make significant gifts supporting practical agriculture research by the University of Georgia Peanut Team.

In 1949, Joe Bryan’s father-in-law, Glisson Craft, founded Damascus Peanut Company as a small operation buying peanuts and selling fertilizer and other supplies to local farmers. Joe Bryan took over the business, building his first shelling plant in 1981, then growing and running the successful business until his death in 2007.

In Bryan’s honor, J.W. and Judy Willis — Bryan’s daughter and her husband, longtime president of Damascus Peanut Company — have created two funds at UGA’s College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. The Joe Bryan Peanut Research Fund will sponsor current research and the Joe Bryan Peanut Endowment will perpetually support research to benefit the industry Bryan championed for so many years.

Bryan Willis, the Willises’ son and Joe Bryan’s grandson, now serves as president of Damascus Peanut Company. In running the family’s business, the UGA Terry College of Business graduate has come to appreciate the role of UGA Cooperative Extension in Georgia’s agriculture industry.

“UGA’s Extension group has an enormous amount to do with the professionalism of the agriculture industry in Georgia. We have run farms in other states and, over time, it has become clear to me that, when you compare agriculture here in Georgia with any of the neighboring states, it is so much more productive here,” Willis said.

When his parents were considering how to put their philanthropy to work in the community, Bryan Willis suggested supporting the UGA Peanut Team.

“Anything we’ve got has come from peanuts. They wanted to give money that is going to be impactful now and going forward,” he said.

The family met with Scott Monfort, associate professor of crop and soil sciences at the UGA Tifton campus and a member of the UGA Peanut Team, and asked him about the program’s greatest needs.

“(Monfort) explained that there is very little funding out there for applied research and there is such a need for applied research. He hears farmers talk about it all day, every day,” Willis said. “This is a problem both for farmers today and for the future. If something can be done to bridge the gap between the technology available today and the farmers’ needs, that’s what we wanted to support.”

The UGA Peanut Team conducts research on all aspects of peanut production, and the team’s efforts, like its Extension counterpart, have continued to be the lifeblood of research information and recommendations for peanut growers in Georgia and many other peanut-growing states in the U.S.

Research project areas include breeding and genetics, agronomics, entomology, plant pathology, engineering, precision agriculture, production economics, marketing, agricultural policy, food science and technology, and more.

“This is a unique fund because it is specifically for the peanut team and it is going to allow us to do applied research. We often have difficulty finding funding for graduate student stipends through grants, which are particularly hard to get for applied research. Most of the grant funding out there goes toward basic science research,” Monfort said. “We sometimes get grower money from the (Georgia Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural) Commodity Commissions to direct applied research, but it is not unlimited.”

Such dedicated funds enable the UGA Peanut Team to perform research that will directly benefit peanut producers in the state on an accelerated timeline. In addition to funding graduate assistantships, the funds have allowed the peanut team to purchase important equipment for field work.

“We definitely have more research projects than we can ever get funded and to find connections that allow us to complete this kind of research is absolutely wonderful,” Monfort said. “We have done and we will continue to do work that is beneficial (to producers) within a couple of years, not just 10 years down the road. We are able to target research questions we have now and figure out how we address those in ways that are important to the donor and to the industry.”

Long-term benefits of the gift are building the infrastructure for further innovation in the industry. “We really appreciate donors who invest in the research itself and in the people who take on this research and do something with it,” Monfort added. “The donors are basically investing in the graduate students who are performing this research while they are earning a doctoral or master’s degree. They are the next wave of agricultural professionals who are going to take this knowledge and advance this industry.”

The many successes of the peanut research team have helped support the productivity and sustainability of the Georgia peanut crop over the past several decades. Growers have seen the state average of peanut production go from an estimated 3,500 pounds-per-acre to more than 4,400 pounds-per-acre, along with a reduction of cost of production per acre due to the increased yields and quality and enhanced production recommendations.

“If the growing community is not productive and profitable, our business becomes an unsustainable business,” said Willis. “My grandfather always thought that everybody in the supply chain deserved to be making money if they were providing value to the chain. Our shelling plant is good for one thing, and that’s to shell peanuts. That’s the only thing it’s good for, so without our peanut producers, we don’t have a business.”

The family feels sure that Joe Bryan would be proud of the gifts to support the agriculture community. “He was always about helping other people, whether it was the local school that needed support or a farmer who needed help. There were so many people he helped throughout his days, that set a great example for all of us to follow,” Bryan Willis said.

By Maria M. Lameiras

Willis family
From left to right, Bryan Willis, Joe Byran and J.W. Willis in a peanut field in 1993. (Photo contributed)