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Fabulous fababeans

Good results for the past few seasons have led to increased interest in fababeans, but like any new crop, there are still a few hurdles to clear

After a false start in the 1970s, it looks like fababeans are back on the Prairies for good this time.

Alberta farmers planted only 15,000 acres in 2012, but most estimates put acreage at well over 100,000 acres last season.

This interest has crossed the border into Saskatchewan too, with more than 15,000 acres going into the ground in 2015, according to industry watchers, although they concede that when acreage is this low, relatively speaking, getting a good handle on the numbers can be a challenge.

But the bottom line is that the crop is growing in importance quite quickly, and the dean of Prairie pulse crop breeders says there’s plenty of potential for more. Bert Vandenberg has been breeding pulses since the early 1990s at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre.

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“I’m going to be a bit conservative and say we’ll probably see fababeans on a million acres across the Prairies,” Vandenberg told Country Guide.

That’s because plenty of reasons have started to stack up for growers to give the crop a hard look. Sherrilyn Phelps, an extension agronomist with the Saskatchewan Pulse Growers Association, says the crop first appeared back in the mid-1970s. But without ready markets it just didn’t catch on.

New low- and no-tannin varieties have expanded the feed market, there is now a small food market, and the promise of fractionation for protein and starch has created more market opportunities over the past four or five years.

Northern Prairie potential

Fababeans are a cooler-season crop, well adapted to areas that receive more rainfall. Phelps says they tolerate this additional moisture better than other pulses, but suffer more when conditions are dry. In many ways they might be a good fit for areas like northeast and east-central Saskatchewan and around Edmonton, where peas have fallen out of favour in recent years in the wake of a series of wet seasons that caused a spike in diseases such as aphanomyces.

“It’s a crop that’s probably best suited for some of the darker soil zones, where they receive more moisture,” Phelps says. “It’s adapted to wetter areas, and does best in places that get eight to 10 inches of rainfall during the growing season.”

Dale Risula, a pulse crops specialist with the Sask-atchewan government, also sees more fababeans being grown in areas where peas have fallen from favour. So far production in Saskatchewan has centred around the northeastern city of Yorkton, where conditions seem conducive, he says.

Growing them in the warmer and drier southern areas is less attractive, but that could change if prices improve.

Risula says that part of what’s driving adoption is the promise of high yields, all packaged up in that promise of a soil-building crop that fixes more nitrogen than any other crop grown in the region. In a typical year yields have been around the 50- to 60-bushel mark, and test plots under ideal conditions have broken the 100-bushel mark.

However, growers don’t exactly get a free pass on the fertility side.

“It’s a crop that utilizes a lot of phosphorus, so you need to either plant it on a field with adequate phosphorus, or be prepared to supplement it with phosphate fertilizer,” says SPGA’s Phelps.

New varieties

On the varietal development front, Vandenberg says he’s already been quietly working on the crop for several years, and sees a few obvious places where improvement is needed.

“I think we need to work on drought tolerance. Weed control and competitiveness are always an issue, and controlling the height of the plant as well,” he says. “There are also some things on the consumption side, such as lowering an anti-nutritional compound that occurs in them.”

Vandenberg’s early efforts have centred around leveraging the existing research infrastructure to look at the crop on budgets that could only charitably be described as “shoestring.” Now that it’s garnering attention and more investment, he says the program is relatively well positioned to make advances, and that it will benefit from a recent linkage with researchers in other areas.

“We’re now linked with a European research consortium at the research level,” Vandenberg says. “It’s a group of researchers working on fababeans north of the 49th parallel.”

Sharing information like this will help crop breeders like himself make greater strides more quickly, he says. Improved funding will also help.

“We now have funding for five years to work on fababeans — we just got the notice today, so I’m pretty happy about that,” Vandenberg said in an interview in December.

Traditionally fababeans have been produced mainly in Europe and fed to livestock. The human market has been very small. Major markets include China and other Asian countries and North African destinations such as Egypt.

To make them successful as a human food will be the key, and there are some hurdles to clear. Most important will be breeding varieties that contain lower levels of certain compounds that can cause jaundice and other health problems in humans. The syndrome — dubbed favism — is common enough that it’s been named after the bean itself, even though it can also happen spontaneously.

“Our breeders are looking to breed that out and to therefore improve its value as a food crop,” Risula said. “This should make it more attractive to grow, because the value as a food crop should be higher.”

Other breeding objectives include making the crop more even overall, especially getting the beans to an appropriate and more uniform size, Risula said. That will pay a couple of dividends. End-use consumers prefer larger beans, and that should help build that market. Farmers also want something more uniform that won’t plug their seeders.

“Getting a more uniform seed size will definitely make it easier for farmers to grow,” Risula said.

As well as the human food market, there could be a market for products that come from fractionating the crop, in particular for the protein portion, which tends to range between 30 to 34 per cent, higher than any other pulse.

“That could fit very well into the North American market,” Risula said. “There’s a market there for protein in the form of protein bars and other similar products.”

The process would also produce starch and fibre which also have robust markets, and provide higher prices than just the raw beans. So far it’s attractive enough that a couple of domestic Prairie processors are already dabbling in it.

Production challenges

Risula says that as with any new crop, there will be bumps along the way. He agrees there are plenty of reasons to be excited about the crop’s potential, but he adds he also counsels caution when talking to growers.

Phelps agrees, noting that like any new crop, there’s been much talk of its advantages, and some of this is well founded — but few crops can live up to all the early hype and fababean comes with real-world challenges. For example, it’s a long-season crop, despite being better adapted otherwise to some of the shorter-season production areas.

“The open falls we’ve been having have helped us out,” Phelps said.

She also noted that in the early part of the season, the crops have been noted to be very frost tolerant, making for a strong case for seeding as early as possible.

Phelps says fababeans can suffer from heat, with trouble starting above 30 C. Prolonged heat, especially at pod setting and filling, can harm yields.

“Between 30 C and 35 C is when we start to see a lot of flower and pod abortions,” she said.

Pollinators are also crucial to reproduction, and the crop responds well to having a ready source of pollinators, such as nearby beehives.

Phelps also noted that while there weren’t major disease problems, there were some problems with chocolate spot, which leaves brown spots on the beans. Because the crop hasn’t been widely grown until recently, there’s no research supporting any fungicide treatment recommendations yet.

So far there aren’t any major insect pests either, though lygus bugs might be a problem. Other pests that have been known to be a concern aren’t present yet, though Phelps cautioned that this may not be a permanent state of affairs.

“It really is an ‘if you grow it, they will come’ kind of a situation,” she said. “Again and again we find we grow new crops and think we don’t have certain pests, only to find out we actually do, or we do now.”

This article was originally published as “Faba-ulous” in the February 2, 2016 issue of Country Guide

Fababean basics

  • A large-podded (up to 10 cm long and two cm wide) legume crop that stands from 1.0 to 1.5 metres tall.
  • An annual legume with a strong hollow stem that promotes standability with little lodging.
  • Commercial production in Western Canada started in 1972.
  • Fababean has a strong taproot, compound leaves and large, white flowers with dark-purple markings.
  • A flower cluster may produce one to four pods, with three or four oblong seeds in each pod.
  • Immature pods are green, turning dark at maturity, from brown to black.
  • Flowering occurs in 45 to 60 days and fababean requires 110 to 130 days to mature.
  • The bushel weight of fababean is 60 pounds.

Source: Saskatchewan Agriculture

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