Growers’ Insights: Beans: An American crop consumed around the world

Published in FSD Update

Exports are growing but so is bean consumption in the U.S.

Beans are a popular export for American farmers. Chris Capaul, a grower of baby lima beans in California, thinks it’s partly due to household economics. “In my dad’s day, if lower income families had a big bag of beans they could get through the winter. Now, many [Americans] don’t cook, and bean growers have joined the world market.” Capaul’s exports to Japan are increasing, as the Japanese economy recovers from the devastating earthquake and tsunami of 2011. “They use lima beans in confections and for bean paste,” he says.

Japan isn’t the only country where beans are big. “Globally, bean consumption has risen in Germany and in Scandinavian countries, where Middle Eastern immigrants have changed the local habits,” says Jeane Wharton, executive director for the U.S. Dry Bean Council. 

Back home, bean consumption increased a little in the past few years—for the first time in decades—bringing U.S. consumption to about 6.7 pounds per person, Wharton adds. 

Pinto beans are America’s most popular, and black beans appear on salad bars, in Mexican restaurants and in school lunches, Wharton says, “but the trendiest bean is the garbanzo. Hummus sales topped $350 million in 2012.” 

Farming practices

“Beans are delicate, and soil preparation, such as breaking up clay, is critical. Weeds are a challenge,” Capaul says. “I rotate rice in about every three years. Rice grows underwater, which completely drowns out weeds and also leaches other unwanted substances, such as alkali, from the soil.” Spraying is expensive and requires labor, so, like most farmers, Capaul sprays as infrequently as possible. 

“Beans take about 90 days to mature, although lima beans take 120 days,” he explains. “My lima beans are left to dry naturally in the sun for 10 days.” Capaul says beans are a healthful bargain, with an average retail price of about 40 to 50 cents per pound for most dry beans. 

Mark Streed, who has been farming for 30 years in Minnesota, grows navy beans, which go into a large manufacturer’s baked beans. He explains that beans are not genetically modified, and navy beans grow on dry land without irrigation. “My combine tests for moisture, and around 16% moisture is good. If you let beans get too dry, they’ll split,” Streed says. He hires laborers to hand weed the low bean crops, which shouldn’t be sprayed with weed control or pesticides after they bloom.

Cindi Allen farms with her husband at Allen Farms, in Ogallala, Neb., where they use center pivot irrigation to make up for low rainfall. This year, the Allens are growing dark red kidney beans. Other years they’ve grown pinto beans. “Our decision [on what to grow] is largely attributed to price,” she says. “Although beans are not traded on the board like commodities such as corn, soybeans and wheat, beans lose their place in [farmed] acres if those commodities increase in price.” Allen says the price she receives for beans has remained fairly steady during the past two years, making them a good crop to grow without too much financial risk. 

Allen’s beans are consumed domestically, as well as exported around the world. And they aren’t always eaten whole. “No longer a side dish, beans appear as flour to increase the protein content in items like noodles, brownies and tortillas,” she says. “Beans are found in season packets and are added to protein bars and other foods to create healthier snacks.”