Banking on edible dry beans

Julienne Isaacs
January 17, 2017
By Julienne Isaacs
When Meghan Moran, the canola and edible bean specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA), is out at an event, soybean growers usually outnumber edible bean growers. “Sometimes the soybean growers will ask if small seeded dry beans, or edible beans, are more profitable,” she says. “And the truth is that they are!” 

Moran has the numbers to back up this claim: this summer she published a side-by-side comparison in Field Crop News, presenting the profitability of soybeans versus white, black and adzuki beans, based on cost of production, yield, price and profit per acre. Soybean profits ranged from $335 to $465 per acre, while white beans ranged from $310 to $590 per acre, black beans from $260 to $660 per acre and adzuki beans from $390 to a whopping $790 per acre.

Moran estimates there are roughly 800 edible dry bean growers in Ontario, many of whom have been growing these beans for a long time. “They don’t grow soy,” she says. “They’re specialized growers.”

These beans have always been profitable for famers in the province. Moran says in the 1980s a grower could produce one crop of white beans and pay for his farm.

So why aren’t more growers in the edible bean game?

“The quick answer is they’re not as easy to grow,” Moran says. “Cost of production is higher. You have to spend more time in the field, there are more passes through the field, more scouting. A lot of farmers do more tillage in the dry edible beans than soybeans because it improves their margins.”

Edible beans boast fewer herbicide options than soybeans, and weed control can be challenging, she adds. To boot, during a wet year, edible beans are less hardy than soybeans. “They don’t like wet feet, where soybeans are more tolerant,” she says. “Good field selection is key, but part of that higher risk is that there are fewer varieties to choose from.”

The main advantage of growing edible beans versus soybeans is the price, but the challenge also draws some producers. “I haven’t quite figured out why, but some farmers who grow these beans just really love doing it,” she says.

Marketing options
Paul Cornwell, a seed manager and field marketer with Hensall District Co-operative, says white beans, navy beans and baked beans are the most popular edible beans to grow in Ontario, surpassing other bean classes in terms of acres. Despite the higher input costs and extra work, he says some growers like growing them because they can be harvested earlier, allowing more time for planting winter wheat.

Cornwell says white bean acres in Ontario were down to 60,000 this year due to lower prices, but can push 80,000 acres in a good year.

White beans are largely exported to the U.K. market, which takes 85 to 90 per cent of Ontario’s white beans; the rest are sold domestically. Black beans mainly head to Mexico, with some sold domestically.

“We contracted white beans at $34 per hundredweight or 34 cents per pound 10 months ago,” Cornwell says. “Now, the price has risen because acres were down, so white are at $38 per hundredweight or 38 cents per pound [as of mid-October]. Black beans are at $40 per hundredweight for this fall.”

Moran says nearly all of Ontario’s edible dry beans are grown on contract; growers work on white and black beans with dealers, who provide seed and information on growing the crops and sometimes even offer custom harvesting. “It is different than soy; the price doesn’t move around that much,” she says. “You can store soybeans and sell them when you’re ready, but with edibles you’re probably working with one dealer.”

Production tips
Although growing edible beans is more labour-intensive than growing soybeans, Moran says growers looking for a change can shift to edible beans fairly easily.

“If you’re a soybean grower, you’re not going to grow kidneys or cranberry beans, so you’ll look to small seeded beans – white, black and maybe adzukis – because you can use the same equipment to harvest them. You can clip white and black beans with a soybean combine,” she says.

Adzuki beans – the most profitable of the lot, depending on the year – are newly covered by crop insurance in Ontario, but Moran says adzuki is not an entry-level crop. “There is interest in Ontario, but there’s only one variety,” she says. “They’re not new, but there isn’t much production info out there. I wouldn’t recommend starting with adzukis.”

In Moran’s online publication, she notes good drainage is key for planting edible dry beans, along with well-rotated ground with good soil structure. Corn and cereals are good previous crops for weed control. Adzukis should not be grown unless there are low levels of soybean cyst nematode (fewer than 3,000 eggs per 100 grams of soil).

Although edible dry beans can bring an excellent return on investment, Moran cautions growers that the risk may be too high if they typically produce average or below average soybean yields on their acres.

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