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The challenge of edible beans

In this sector, if you’re going to grow them, you have to be prepared to grow them well

In a crop environment where low commodity prices and higher operating costs continue to challenge growers, there is often a time during late winter or early spring when some growers consider their cropping alternatives.

Talk generally turns to oats or barley, identity preserved (IP) soybeans, perhaps even forages. And somewhere in the mix, edible beans often receive consideration.

The challenges of edible beans, both real and perceived, can be numerous. There are the contracts (versus wide open production), exacting production specifications, limited weed management options, and increasing concerns over maximum residue limits (MRLs).

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Add to that lower acreages and solid but shrinking markets abroad, and it’s understandable why more growers are opting for the relative simplicity of corn or soybeans. Still, growing edible beans falls under much the same heading as oats or malting barley, or forages for export. Those who grow for those markets usually do a very good job of it. And where some see only hurdles, they see opportunities.

Historically, there was a day within the past 30 years when Ontario had a good hold of white bean production. In 1987, provincial acreage stood at 135,000 acres. Today, it takes the combination of white bean and all coloured bean production to reach 110,000 to 120,000 acres, annually.

Since 1997, acreage remained roughly the same at a bit over 60,000 acres of white beans and 40,000 of coloured beans, with some fluctuation from year to year.

During those years of decline, however, individuals such as Peter Johnson would urge growers to consider including edible beans in their rotations, even though he was the OMAFRA specialist for cereals, not beans. Two crops are better than one, he’d say, three are better than two, and four crops are better than three.

Interestingly, Johnson also had the numbers to show that in the late 1990s, some edible bean classes actually had a higher per-acre profit margin than corn, wheat and soybeans (see sidebar). Besides, because the earlier harvest dates on edibles led to earlier planting dates for winter wheat, adding beans to the rotation helped push wheat yields.

Today, the picture has changed considerably. The markets for edible beans for export overseas and to Mexico have grown, and the larger-seeded bean varieties require more specialized equipment to maintain the highest quality for end-use customers. But there are still growers who are contracting for acres, and there’s now a greater market for adzuki beans.

“Edible bean food producers tend to be very progressive and innovative,” says Derwyn Hodgins, origination manager for Hensall District Co-op, north of London, Ont. “They select the best land for dry bean production and they’re knowledgeable to achieve large yields of high-quality beans. They understand the advantages of crop rotations such as the benefits of increased wheat yields by planting their winter wheat earlier.”

Hodgins adds that acres of dry beans can increase or decrease according to economic conditions and where they’ll fit with crop rotations, and growers who are familiar with edibles understand that. (For small-seeded beans, such as adzukis, white and black beans, there’s no specialized equipment necessary since these “upright” varieties can be harvested with a soybean combine header).

Changing tastes

It wasn’t many decades ago that Canadian edible bean producers were relied on to satisfy the hunger of Britons who consumed baked beans with gusto, often for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Beans were and still are the picture of economy and nutrition, providing inexpensive fibre-rich protein. Still, those days of supplying Britain have taken a hit, and diets everywhere are changing along with a growing desire for different taste sensations.

In spite of that reduction in demand, companies such as HDC still have a robust listing of potential markets for their food-grade products; HDC on its own exports to more than 35 different countries around the world, including increasing volumes to South Africa.

If marketers in North America could entice consumers to increase their consumption of edible beans or food-grade soybean products to something similar to current levels in the U.K. or Japan, Hodgins says the bean sector in North America would be hard pressed to meet that demand.

In fact, the industry is trying to do just that by increasing the consumption of different market classes of edible beans in Ontario. Demand for the various dry bean classes still changes yearly with global supply and demand, but demand for many classes is growing more consistently.

“The demand for pulses and dry beans has seen very opportunistic growth,” adds Hodgins, noting that some of it might be slight while other growth could be more robust, depending on supply chain partnerships. “The Canadian currency has created dry bean sales opportunities, too.”

It also helps that researchers are exploring new health benefits for beans, peas and lentils. Two Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (AAFC) researchers are working on nutritional fronts, one to show how pulses can help stabilize blood sugar and another on supplementing flour from pulses in baked goods.

In the former research study, Guelph-based AAFC researcher Dr. Dan Ramdath is looking at the responses in blood glucose levels after replacing starchy foods (breads, rice and potatoes) with pulses.

The latter study, conducted by Dr. Qiang Liu, also with AAFC in Guelph, is attempting to enhance the nutritive properties of food staples including bread, using flour derived mainly from pulses such as peas and lentils. The goal in this study is much the same, i.e. to slow digestion and the absorption of glucose into the blood stream, thereby stabilizing blood sugar levels.

Agronomic challenges remain

For Meghan Moran, the picture for edible beans within the province is marked by ups and downs. With high land prices, growers are stressed to maximize their returns on a per-acre basis. From an agronomic and management perspective, there are several hurdles that growers must overcome in any growing season, regardless of pricing or market opportunities.

“If you have the right field and a good season, and you’re willing to do all the increased management above what is done for soybeans, then you might make more money than you do with soy,” says Moran, the edible bean specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFA). “There are some soil health concerns in my opinion, because our bean growers conduct a lot of tillage.”

Moran also cites the lack of weed control options in edible beans, calling it growers’ primary concern. But it’s worth noting that with glyphosate-resistant Canada fleabane, ragweed, giant ragweed and waterhemp in the province, growers are having a tougher time finding suitable products and combinations to overcome any weed management challenges. The lack of weed control options is also a problem for growers with IP soybeans, as well.

Regardless of those and any other setbacks for growers considering edible bean production, Moran says she’s interested in promoting white and black beans within lower tillage scenarios. That’s a project in the making for her. Other practices that growers are engaging in that could have an impact on production include increased strip till or reduced till scenarios, along with increasing use of cover crops. Those practices help maintain soil health, keep soil in place, and mimic an extra crop in the rotation which certainly helps edible bean production.

There’s also the Ontario Bean Growers board and its promotional activities and investment in research on new genetics, an integral part of solving many of the challenges facing edible bean growers.

“Whatever we can do to support the development and release of new varieties will go a long way,” adds Moran.

That’s also an important consideration for Hodgins. Regardless of the challenges or the opportunities, the fact is that he and HDC need a consistent volume of high-quality dry beans every year in order to meet demand for edible beans as well as food-grade soybeans. And he acknowledges the concerns about weed control options, adding that minor-use evaluation of new chemistries is critical as weed control measures are vital to success in production.

“With higher commodity prices,” says Hodgins, “food companies must be more innovative and work harder to understand food producers’ costs of production and management to achieve volume targets for dry beans.”

Crop alternatives: Remember 1998?

The year 1998 had some interesting numbers attached to it. At its annual “Grower Day,” organized that year by the Great Canadian Bean Company in Ailsa Craig, Ont., Peter Johnson, then the cereals specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, was a featured speaker and spoke highly of including edible beans in growers’ rotations.

Johnson brought an overhead chart (we weren’t using PowerPoint slides yet) and compared corn and soybean production prices, costs and returns per acre with those of white navy beans, cranberry beans and dark red kidney beans. Specifically, he used average yield, price per bushel (on a forward contract basis) and costs (not including land rent).

Starting with soybeans on that day in the spring of 1998, Johnson’s chart showed a return of $232 per acre, based on a yield of 45 bu./ac., a price of $8.40 per bushel and costs of $146 per acre.

It’s worth noting that the year before, the average soybean yield in Ontario was 38 bu./ac. with a price of $9.16 per bushel. The final figures for 1998 were 41 bu./ac. and a price of $7.58 per bushel.

On the corn side, the return was $206 per acre, based on a yield of 125 bu./ac. (which was considered to be a high estimate), a price of $3.50 per bushel and costs of $232 per acre.

In 1997, soybeans yielded 38 bu./ac. with a price of $9.16 per bushel. Compare that to the actual numbers for 1998, of 41 bu./ac. for average yield and a price of $7.58 per bushel.

The surprising figures from Johnson’s chart on that day indicated cranberry and dark red kidneys would return $250 per acre, based on a yield of 15 bu./ac., $34 per bushel unit price and $260 per acre in costs. On the white navy bean side, growers could see $226 per acre using the same formula.

How times have changed.

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