Premium Peanut contracts with more than 400 peanut growers across 45 counties in rural Georgia and South Carolina. The farms are not only suppliers; they are also shareholders in the company. (Source: Premium Peanut)

Editor’s Note: This article was provided by Coastal Enterprises, Inc. CEI’s subsidiary, CEI Capital Management, was part of arranging financing for Premium Peanut through the federal New Markets Tax Credit.

When Premium Peanut presented its first five-year-service awards last year, it was a true celebration. 

The young company is in Douglas, Georgia, a major peanut-growing region that has historically experienced persistently high unemployment and low family incomes. Since forming in 2014 the company has rapidly grown to be the largest single shelling facility in the world. They boast 235 employees, 450 grower-owners, and 11 buying points. Premium Peanut handles over 10% of the peanut crop in the United States and its customers consist of major snack, candy, and peanut butter manufacturers domestically, as well as customers in more than 30 countries around the world.

The company management grew its product line fast, adding a peanut oil plant in 2017 and a seed research and development operation, leading to hiring about 80 new positions. Many of those recognized for their five-year work anniversary have been with the business from the start, typically promoted to leadership positions over their tenure.

This scale of job creation, especially good quality jobs that pay a living wage, provide at least basic benefits, and offer opportunities for training and advancement, is challenging for businesses in rural areas. Seven years ago, when the company first broke ground, residents hoped the project would be a game-changer for the local economy and employment landscape, but success wasn’t guaranteed. As a start-up with no historical performance in a competitive commodity market, the company struggled to secure traditional bank financing for equipment and facilities. 

Premium Peanut suppliers partner with the company to implement sustainable farming techniques, ensuring peanuts remain an environmentally friendly crop. (Source: Premium Peanut)

The federal New Markets Tax Credits (NMTC) program provided an opportunity to bring the required investment capital to the project through the partnership with Truist Bank, the bank’s regional community investment office, and a Maine-based NMTC management firm, CEI Capital Management LLC (CCML). The NMTC Program was designed by Congress to stimulate private investment and economic growth in low-income communities that lack access to the patient capital needed to support and grow businesses, create jobs, and sustain healthy local economies. The seven year NMTC investment cycle has just concluded for Premium Peanut.

“When CEI Capital Management considers an investment, good job creation is front and center,” said CCML CEO Traci Vaine. “Premium Peanut’s job creation, workforce development, and career advancement practices exemplify the approach CCML prioritizes.”

The jobs created by Premium Peanut are meaningful in a rural area where opportunities are few and far between. Management focused on strengthening opportunities for advancement, and as the business grew, they responded to the expanding workforce needs by investing in their people, like Safety and Training Coordinator Ashlie Thornton, who joined the company six years ago as a temporary sanitation worker.

Ashlie decided she wanted to build a career with Premium Peanut. Her supervisors encouraged her, assigning her jobs as a quality control technician and stock operator. Ashlie learned how to run the cleaners, the shellers, and every aspect of the plant that she could access. After a year and a half, she was recruited to the safety department, where she found her passion. When her supervisor left for another position, Premium Peanut saw an opportunity to build from within.

“At that time, Premium Peanut could have gone outside of the company and got someone who already had the knowledge to fill that position. Instead, they said, ‘Hey, let’s grow the employee that we have’,” Ashlie recalled. “They have provided me with every tool necessary to be successful in my position.”

Ashlie is now OSHA certified, a member of the American Society of Safety Professionals, and well-equipped to keep the plant compliant and its people safe as the company’s lead safety employee. 

“My reward every single day is my employees going home safe. That’s my number one goal, to ensure that these employees go home to their families the way they came in. Employees are constantly looking out for each other.”

That culture extends throughout the business. After Covid, the company contracted a free mobile clinic to be at the plant for two hours every day. The company pays bonuses twice a year, and has fresh fruit delivered weekly. For fun, it sponsors all-staff picnics and held a forklift rodeo for workers and their families. Its rural location helps foster a sense of community. “Most people are seeing their coworkers in the grocery stores and at the sides of the little league games,” said CFO Marshall Spivey. 

Aerial view of the Premium Peanut shelling plant in Douglas, Georgia. With a shelling capacity of 300,000 tons of peanuts per year, it is the largest of its kind in the world. (Source: Premium Peanut)

Farmer shareholders also have a voice in the operations. Premium Peanut has paid $54 million in dividends to their 450 farm families in the last five years, with another round of dividend payments expected in 2023. This is money that stays in the community. Growers can buy new farm equipment, invest in their infrastructure, buy more land, and more. The dividend has kept farms in business that might not have made it. 

The company sponsors an annual shareholder retreat with the farmers, and leadership visits buying points around the region, all mutually sharing information. CFO Spivey said that’s where the idea for a new sustainability initiative came from. Growers noted how peanuts require comparatively little water to grow when compared to almonds, making them a naturally sustainable nut. The company created new grower liaison positions to work with the farmers in the fields and at the buying points, performing field assessments on crop sustainability. Farmers can earn an extra $10 per ton for participating.

Such benefits ripple through the community, illustrating the power of NMTCs in rural places. “Absolutely any time you go out into the community, and you go out with your Premium Peanut shirt on, everybody you talk to has something nice to say,” Ashlie said.

Premium Peanut is also investing in the next generation of its workforce. A community benefits agreement with CCML directed $80,000 to the University of Georgia and Wiregrass Technical College to fund scholarships and training programs. 

“I know that this is just the beginning for me with this company. I know that they’re going to continue to help me grow in every aspect that I can to do my job successfully,” Ashlie said.

Leah B. Thibault is the director of marketing and communications at Coastal Enterprises, Inc. (CEI), a Maine-based community development financial institution.

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