Dry Beans, Other Pulse Crops Ride Rollercoaster

Market to Market | Clip
Apr 29, 2022 | 7 min

Dry beans and other pulse crops slowly gain ground in U.S.


Crop rotations come out of different situations whether it be for soil health, weed control or demand. 

Some of the diversity is driven by weather and climate. 

USDA lists 16 different crops in the state of North Dakota. Many are considered pulse crops and have been good for some producers.

Colleen Bradford Krantz reports on the attention to the industry from the marketing to the genetics in this week’s Cover Story. 

Darren Kadlec farms in northeast North Dakota’s Walsh County, which last year had the distinction of being the U.S. county with the most land planted to dry edible beans, at about 100,000 acres. His father brought pinto beans to their farm in the Red River Valley in the 1970s, but Kadlec, the fourth generation on the land, is unlikely to give it up.

Darren Kadlec, Producer, Pisek, North Dakota: “Dry beans fit the bill to diversify and raise another crop. It’s a great rotation crop. It fixes some nitrogen. The ground is beautiful for the next year for the following crop like spring wheat. It’s a different way to break the weed cycle as you use different herbicides…and the climate fits incredibly well right here.”

Kadlec will quickly point out there are challenges, such as pinto beans’ preference for a cooler climate, their dislike of too much moisture, and the lack of a future contracts that could make for increased price discovery.

Darren Kadlec, Producer, Pisek, North Dakota: “It’s a specialty market so it’s much more volatile. Contracts do exist…where you can contract a percentage of your crop, then you have the open market on the backside. The export is what can really add to the volatility. Let’s say a country like Mexico comes in… and they can buy a significant amount of beans and clean up the carryover in a very short amount of time.”

Dry beans are just one of the pulse crops, defined as legumes with edible seeds that are harvested dry, to have gradually gained acreage in the United States. Besides dry beans, other pulse crops now grown on about a million acres each include lentils and dry peas, and, briefly, chickpeas before production dropped.

Some pulse crops have seen acreage level off in the last few years. The trend is expected to continue this spring with the war in Ukraine and other factors pushing farmers toward oil-producing crops like canola, soybeans and sunflowers. However, experts say the family of edible seeds show potential for additional growth, particularly dry peas and black beans.

Darren Kadlec, Producer, Pisek, North Dakota: “COVID hit and people realized that beans were part of being a staple food and there was an incredible amount of inventory that got moved.”

Weather events in North Dakota, including a large snowstorm during the 2019 harvest, pulled down the supply as demand was about to spike.

Mitch Coulter, Executive Director, Northharvest Bean Growers Association: “When the pandemic hit, of course, dry goods were one of the first things that flew off the shelf for the consumers. And… our inventory was gone, we totally sold out. The good thing was in 2020, we had the largest crop on record. So we were able to replenish that stock. But it was scary because we’ve never had it where…every bean we had on the shelf: gone.”

Coulter said the United Kingdom’s recent agreement to drop a 25 percent retaliatory trade tariff on dry beans should help boost sales. The industry has also seen more dry beans and dry peas, with their high protein and fiber, being used in plant-based meat alternatives and beverages.

Mitch Coulter, Executive Director, Northharvest Bean Growers Association: “We’ve seen a lot more interest around dry beans once they start looking into … protein replacement or flexitarian diets where they’re blending plant-based proteins with meat products.”

Central Valley Bean Cooperative in Buxton, North Dakota offers farmers contracts, and annually processes and markets about 1.2 million 100-pound bags of dry beans. The company deals almost exclusively in pintos, which are the type typically used in refried beans. The recent volatility with pricing following weather disasters and global events isn’t new to general manager Dan Fuglesten.

Dan Fuglesten, Central Valley Bean Cooperative: “It’s wild… Probably by all accounts, ’20 production was a record on acres and volume. And the market dropped from, say, a $40 grower to a $24 grower per hundredweight price, which is pretty significant. And then, as last year’s drought was developing throughout the winter, the market started coming up and… we’ve hit $50 now this year.”

That $50 is considered near-record pricing for the industry. Fuglesten said there is some concern, though, that the industry may be limited by the supply of dry bean seed, which is raised almost exclusively in Idaho and Wyoming. Although farmers are legally allowed to keep and replant some of their harvested dry beans, industry leaders are concerned the genetics may not be as strong.

Dan Fuglesten, Central Valley Bean Cooperative: “Seed becomes a talking point on limiting acreage…So a lot of growers…are only interested in growing dry beans if they can get a certain seed they want. And there’s concern that, on years when there is good demand for seed, there is only so much that can get grown.”

Plant breeders at North Dakota State University are working on developing dry pea, lentil and chickpea cultivars that perform well statewide rather than just farther west.

Nonoy Bandillo, assistant professor, North Dakota State University: “I think the future will be: we’re hoping to bring pulses here to the east as well. That would be exciting.”

Bandillo expects the availability of genetic information and cameras that more precisely identify plant diseases to help speed up development of new options for the region.

Nonoy Bandillo, assistant professor, North Dakota State University: “That’s why we need to use molecular tools so that we could… breed crops in a more precise way.”

In the last four years, North Dakota State University’s pulse breeding program has released a new variety of yellow pea, chickpea and green pea. Developing a new cultivar can take 10 years but Bandillo said the work should become faster over time.

Nonoy Bandillo, assistant professor, North Dakota State University: “Everybody talks about this 9 billion people by 2050, right, but nobody talks about this growing demand for pulse crops… I would expect a linearly increasing trend on the demand for pulses.”

By Colleen Krantz, Market to Market, colleen.krantz@iowapbs.org