Voca Peanut Festival continues despite small number of growers

Twenty years and counting. That is how long the Voca community has been hosting its annual Peanut Festival, and despite the dwindling number of peanut growers in the county, the festival is going strong. Originated 20 years ago by a group of Voca residents led by Carol Henderson, the festival has been one of the key fund-raisers used to keep the Community Center up and running. Each year the numbers vary, some better than others, but the annual event continues to bring old friends together for good ol’ fashioned fun and fellowship. The building in which the festival is held each year was originally built in 1935 as a school for the residents of Voca. Historical photos dating back to the original facility show the roller coaster life of the building and how once classes were disbanded, neglect and lack of use allowed the building to fall into utter disrepair. “When I moved here 40 years ago, I saw this building and knew that we needed to do something with it,” said Mrs. Henderson. “We needed someplace for our kids to go, so I started a fund-raiser to help renovate the old dilapidated building.” Farmers in the Voca community began growing peanuts after the Great Depression. What began as a way to make use of the unique soil type soon turned into a viable way of making a living. “The soil was perfect for growing peanuts,” said Voca native and former peanut farmer Earl Behrens. “It was just after the Great Depression, and we were growing anything that we could. In those days, we harvested everything by hand. Over time as the government program made it more profitable to grow them, more and more people planted them and made big investments in land and equipment.” The success of the peanut industry in the early years following the depression was evident by the businesses in McCulloch County that were involved in the peanut industry in one way or another. Brady Mills, the old peanut mill that used to be located on the Old Mason Road, grew right along with the number of peanut farmers until the great drouth of the 1950s. A World War II price support program supplemented the peanut crops but began limiting the amount of pounds and number of acres farmers could produce. The price support structure continued until 1995 when it was determined that the price would be capped. The rising costs coupled with the dwindling returns pushed many producers, struggling to make a profit, out of the peanut growing market for good. Between 1995 and 2000, the price guarantee by the government was slowly phased out. What was once a valuable cash crop has now been reduced to a risky investment. Growing a good crop of peanuts requires copious amounts of irrigation and timely weather conditions to ensure a good harvest. Most farmers in the area took the opportunity to exit the market to the point that by some estimates, a mere 300 acres in the county are still dedicated to growing peanuts. The thousands of acres in the Voca area that were once planted with peanuts have now been purchased by area sand plants for their valuable mining rights. In all, only a handful of producers still maintain a peanut field and continue to grow and harvest the once-valuable crop. The Voca community has seen ups and downs in population numbers, but according to several locals, the number always associated with the town has been 100 residents. Those 100 residents have taken the old school house under their wing and continued the support needed to keep it going. Today, the Voca quilting club meets in their own special room for their weekly quilting sessions. According to Mrs. Henderson, there has been everything from weddings to birthday parties in the building that was originally built for school purposes in 1935. “I can remember when they closed the school down in 1948,” said Voca native Jimmy Ellison. “I was in the fourth grade when they moved us to Brady and shut it down.” The school is officially closed, and the peanut crop is not nearly what it used to be. The faithful Voca residents, many moving on in years but some younger and new, continue a tradition that typifies what small town living is all about. They know each other, they help each other and they stick together as a community to continue the name and way of life that is as hard to find as a peanut in a haystack.

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