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A taste for fababeans

Will new zero-tannin varieties mean fababeans finally take off? Margot and Theo Thirsk hope so

Sitting in her kitchen last summer, watching a massive thunderstorm pass through on an early July evening, Margot Thirsk knew exactly why she likes fababeans better than field peas.

She and husband Theo have grown both on their operation near the community of Kelsey, about 80 miles southeast of Edmonton, with the 2014 season marking their second crop of fababeans.

“They combine so much more easily than field peas,” Margot, the farm’s chief combine operator, said during a visit with Country Guide. “They stand up and don’t lodge.”

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“We’ve had field pea crops that lodged so badly you could only combine them one way. You’d have to make a pass, then run all the way back to the other end of the field and start again.”

This very basic and practical consideration is just one of many reasons the crop is getting a long hard look from a lot of growers around the province, said Theo. He also cited declining field pea acres due to growing disease pressure that makes the crops less economic, plus accompanying concern over too-tight canola rotations driven home by the clubroot situation.

“I think people are really looking for another crop to add to their rotation right now,” Theo said.

Fababeans also fix nitrogen from the air like peas, so they’re attractive as a relatively low-cost crop to produce.

All this has combined to create an interesting situation for the Thirsks. Their fababean crops have been getting a whole lot of attention. In fact, Theo even admits to engaging in a little good-natured ribbing with the neighbours.

“Last year I had it on a back road, and I saw the tire tracks and footprints,” he said. “People are really interested in seeing this crop in the field, and I don’t blame them. This year, I’ve been joking with the neighbours that I put it right on the highway so it will be easier to find.”

The next morning after the storm had passed, a visit to the field in question gave an inkling just why other farmers might be curious about this crop. Despite pounding rain from the storm the night before, there was absolutely no evidence of lodging throughout the field.

Supported by sturdy thumb-sized stems, the broad leaves and white flowers continued to stand upright, something that Theo said remains more or less constant even as the large seed pods develop a bit later in the season.

Meanwhile, the Thirsk’s level of interest is nothing new to Craig Lindholm, a seed grower in the New Norway area, just west of Kelsey. Lindholm has been a tireless promoter of the crop in recent years, and the Thirsks have grown their seed under contract to Lindholm Seed Farms.

Lindholm has also been a familiar presenter at farm meetings throughout the province, telling Country Guide that growers are interested in the crop because it solves a number of problems for them.

“It’s grower-friendly all the way,” Lindholm said. “It’s just much easier to manage.”

Sown with conventional equipment, it takes just a few days longer to mature than wheat, yet is frost-tolerant and hardy, and Lindholm says over a number of seasons the crops he’s familiar with have averaged about 50 bushels to the acre, even through some tough growing conditions, for a gross return of $350 to $400 an acre, with prices in the $7 to $8 range, where they sat as harvest approached.

“In a good year, you can easily get between 60 and 70 bushels an acre,” Lindholm said.

All that has combined to drive exponential growth in the crop over the past couple of seasons, although it started from an admittedly small base. In 2012, farmers sowed just 6,000 acres to the crop. In 2013, estimates pegged the crop at between 25,000 and 30,000 acres. In 2014, most reliable estimates say about 80,000 acres went into the ground.

Those are tiny numbers in a province with almost 24 million arable acres, but Lindholm insists they’re significant.

“It might not sound like much — a few tens of thousands of acres — but it’s getting big enough that we can start approaching some big players about getting fababeans into their feed rations,” Lindholm said.

That’s going to be the make-or-break question that determines how big this crop gets in the coming years. Will faba marketers succeed at finding those innovative livestock producers?

It’s a bit of a struggle because this isn’t a crop with a long history as a feedstock, due to a quirk in its physiology, Lindholm said. Until very recently the beans held a lot of tannin, an astringent and bitter plant compound.

To say the least it’s an acquired taste, and it made fababeans a very small human food product and kept them pretty much entirely out of the livestock feed sector.

“It makes the beans bitter and the livestock are not receptive to them,” Lindholm said. “A few years ago, however, the first zero-tannin fababeans were developed which don’t have that bitter taste.”

That’s led to a flurry of new research, all aimed at test-driving this new crop in feed rations. It would be a natural fit, since what’s left when the tannins are removed is a palatable, high-protein, high-energy product.

“There’s been a lot of feed ration testing, and it’s worked out well, especially in the hog sector,” Lindholm said.

But despite that fit with hog rations, the crucial issue of reaching critical mass remains. That’s because large-scale hog operations are like any large production concern — they thrive on consistency.

Hog farmers prefer to formulate a feed ration that works, and then use that ration day in and day out. They’re not exactly opposed to including new potential food sources, but you could call them a bit of a tough sale, and certainly not interested if there isn’t enough on hand to supply their operations year-round.

This means the crop is entering a crucial few years, where market development is going to be the focus. Without a feed market, fabas may never be anything but a niche crop.

But what if feed markets come online? It’s hard to say, but Lindholm is convinced the crop could become a big thing, since farmer interest is already high.

“This is a nice alternative for farmers looking for something other than peas and other pulse crops, because of the disease issues,” Lindholm said. “Really, I think it’s nothing but good.”

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