‘Nuttiest job I ever had’: Norfolk County’s peanut pioneers come out of their shell

When Ernie Racz started growing peanuts in the mid-1970s, some of his fellow tobacco farmers in Norfolk County thought he had gone nuts.

There were days he agreed with them.

“It was something that no one had ever done before,” he said, sitting at a picnic table outside Kernal Peanuts, the farm store attached to his Vittoria-area peanut farm and managed by his wife, Nancy.

Health warning labels on cigarette packs had just become law, and Ernie and his father, Charles, figured it was time to diversify their crop.

“We were looking for an alternative for tobacco. Something that would replace imports,” he recalled.

And since no one was growing peanuts, there was no danger of interfering in an established market.

“We wouldn’t be stepping on somebody else’s toes,” he said.

The agricultural research station in Delhi had been trialing peanuts since the early ’70s, reasoning the warm-weather crop — which grows underground in the kind of sandy soil found throughout Norfolk — might thrive in the county’s temperate climate.

So the Raczes took a shot at growing peanuts — which are not actually nuts, but legumes — as an experimental crop, planting test plots for Agriculture Canada.

“I liked the challenge,” Ernie said. “We started from scratch. Knew nothing. And it was exciting.”

With that excitement came nerves, Nancy recalled.

“Going from tobacco, which made money, to something unknown was very risky,” she said. “There was a lot of trial and error in the beginning.”

One early error was thinking peanuts could grow in southern Ontario like they do in the southern United States, where the harvested plants are left in the field for two weeks to dry in the sun.

Autumn frosts cost Ernie nearly 40 per cent of his first 10-acre crop.

He solved that problem by deploying a specialized combine called the “once-over harvester,” which uprooted the plants and knocked off the shelled peanuts at the same time, after which they were immediately brought to dry inside tobacco kilns, small buildings where green tobacco leaves are hung to cure.

“The kilns were empty, so why not use that system to dry our peanuts?” Ernie said.

“Peanuts would be planted before tobacco and it was harvested after tobacco, so it worked out beautifully.”

Each converted tobacco bin held about 2,000 pounds of harvested peanuts — roughly an acre’s worth — and had a false floor that allowed air to move through and dry the peanuts from below.

A pneumatic system to vacuum up the peanuts replaced shovels that had broken the shells.

“You learn from your mistakes, and there were a lot of those,” Ernie said.

After three years tinkering with planting, harvest and storage procedures, the Raczes scaled up production and established Kernal Peanuts in 1979, incorporating as a business three years later.

The Kernal name is an amalgam of son Kyle, Ernie, Nancy, and daughter Alisha.

What started as a single row of peanuts surrounded by tobacco fields quickly became 150 to 200 acres of Valencia peanuts — the sweetest of the four types of North American peanut — grown exclusively using Kernal seed.

The farm did not produce enough to sell to big suppliers, so the Raczes decided to open an on-site market and add value to their peanuts by roasting and salting them, dusting them with all manner of seasonings and spices, and coating the nuts in candy and chocolate.

Later came peanut hummus and other eye-catching innovations, such as developing a peanut with a jet black skin, an industry first.

Ernie thought consumers who until that point only had access to imported peanuts — mainly from the United States — would appreciate a locally grown alternative.

He was right.

“Once people tried the product they said, ‘oh, this is really great,’” Ernie said.

The couple led farm tours and attended countless exhibits and shows in those early years, giving away peanut samples to prove to a skeptical public that a foodstuff most common to sunny states like Georgia and Alabama could be grown in Ontario.

Ernie planted, harvested and processed the crop, while Nancy ran the store — which employs a staff of 10 — and handled the packaging, marketing, and accounting for the business, a division of labour that continues to this day.

Bus and schools tours came in from all over, while business in gift baskets and corporate gifts was brisk, and products were shipped as far as British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.

“I think I worked five years, every single day. We were open seven days a week,” Nancy said.

Many relatives have logged hours at the retail store, which is still open six days a week.

Online sales shot up during the pandemic, and today the farm market remains a popular stop for campers from the Greater Toronto Area looking to stock up for a week in Turkey Point.

Kernal products are stocked at more than 50 locations throughout Canada — mostly in Ontario but some in Quebec and Alberta — including farmers markets, bed and breakfasts, restaurants and bakeries.

Ernie is especially proud that Kernal Peanuts is a green operation, with the discarded shells burned for heat in a wood stove or turned into horse bedding, and leftover roasting oil used to fuel the tractors.

Though the crop’s size is now down to about 100 acres, Ernie is still the largest peanut grower in Canada. With a billion pounds of peanuts still imported to this country annually, there is plenty of room to expand the domestic market, and Ernie sees an optimistic future for the industry as growing seasons get longer thanks to climate change.

As for Kernal Peanuts, the future is less clear.

“It’s hard for me to say the ‘R’ word, but we’re trying to retire,” Ernie said.

But there is no succession plan in place. The couple’s son, Kyle, who was to take over the farm, died two years ago, and daughter Alisha lives abroad.

That leaves Ernie to clean out his many machine parts and prototype inventions — “Ernie’s boneyard — his junk,” as a smiling Nancy calls the collection — and prepare the property for what comes next.

The Raczes would love to have a farmer or entrepreneur buy the operation as is, to build on their legacy.

“If somebody wanted to buy it, they would just have to walk in and it’s all done,” Nancy said.

“We made this and we’d like to see it continue on, because we put so much work into it. And we have that brand name, which is known,” Ernie added.

The Raczes were among four local agricultural pioneers celebrated at a ceremony at the Waterford Heritage and Agricultural Museum on Sunday.

Rob Adlam, a member of the agricultural Hall of Fame selection committee, praised the couple’s “resiliency.”

“Starting over isn’t the easiest thing,” Adlam said.

“Your innovation with machinery, and your foresight, these are the best qualities that represent the farming community and Norfolk agriculture.”

The recognition comes 15 years after Kernal Peanuts was awarded the Premier’s Award for Agri-Food Innovation Excellence in 2008.

Ernie said he was “totally flabbergasted and very honoured” by the Hall of Fame nod.

“You work at stuff and you don’t realize that you’re maybe doing something that’s never been done before,” he said.

More than 40 years after taking a chance on a new crop, Norfolk’s peanut pioneers can look back with pride.

“It’s been really interesting. It has not been dull,” Ernie said.

“It’s basically the nuttiest job I’ve ever had.”

J.P. Antonacci, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Hamilton Spectator