Prices high as edible bean crop harvest begins
The harvest of dry edible beans, a crop North Dakota dominates, began in earnest during the weekend as many farmers in the Red River Valley left clouds of dust Monday as their combines scooped up windrows of the legumes.
After farmers in Minnesota and North Dakota reaped a record crop of dry edible beans -- pintos, navies, whites, blacks, etc. -- last year, they will be counting far fewer beans this fall, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
For that reason, prices to farmers are far above normal, making this specialty crop a little more special this year.
Curtis Amundson dumped a load of pinto beans from his specialized Pickett harvester into a semi-truck box in a 160-acre field north of East Grand Forks on Monday, before turning over the harvesting rig to vacationing local police officer, Mike Swang.
The harvester is built in Brazil, where pinto beans were domesticated millennia ago.
The close and small nature of the dry edible bean business -- and perhaps the stature of Amundson as a producer -- is shown by his getting a call Monday morning from Steve Pickett, of Burley, Idaho, owner of the company that makes and sells the harvesters.
"He was here over the weekend, he's in Michigan today -- said he will be in California Thursday," Amundson said.
He got this field planted about May 25 and despite the less-than-ideal spring and early summer, it has turned out pretty well in this deep black soil that's good for sugar beets and potatoes as well as the soybeans, wheat and dry beans Amundson grows.
The beans' moisture is down to nearly 14 percent, ready to store, and it's yielding about 24 hundredweights, or "bags," per acre, he figures.
That's far above average this year.
Meanwhile, prices are at $40, $42 or even higher, according to reports around the region, well above the typical average of about $25-per bag seen the past decade.
Last year, North Dakota and Minnesota grew 46 percent of the nation's dry edible bean crop. Each state set a record: 11.5 million bags in North Dakota and 3.06 million bags in Minnesota.
This year is a different story.
Last month, USDA estimated North Dakota's production would total 5.5 million bags of dry beans, only 48 percent of the 2010 output.
Minnesota's dry bean production will be 2.42 million bags, down 21 percent from 2010's output.
U.S. planted acreage of dry beans this year, at 1.3 million, was the lowest since 1983, USDA reported, a full third less than last year's plantings. U.S. production of dry beans will be down 36 percent from last year, to 20.5 million bags.
Those estimates were made by USDA in August and likely will move downward this fall after the unexpected early freeze last week that hit fields in North Dakota and Minnesota.
Dry beans are a small, specialty crop compared with the 90 million acres of corn and 55 million acres of wheat planted by U.S. farmers. But it's a key cash crop in the greater Red River Valley, which has perhaps the biggest variety of farm crops of any region in the nation.
USDA reported Monday that 30 percent of Minnesota's dry beans had been harvested by Sunday, while 25 percent of North Dakota's crop had been cut, although no harvested estimate was reported. But there's little doubt a good share is in the bin by now.
"I think in our trade area, we are 60 percent done," said Brian Schanilac, president and manager of Forest River (N.D.) Bean Co., about 35 miles northwest of Grand Forks.
"The quality is good. Overall, the best fields are achieving the growers' five-year average yields, and due to the wet spring, some fields are yielding below average."
Overall, he expects the state average yield to be well below 15 hundredweights per acre.
The frost last Thursday hurt bean fields that still were mostly green, needing another week or two of maturation, Schanilac said.
For Amundson's beans, the plants mostly were mature, so any green beans killed by the freeze were few and far between and were going to be cut now anyway, said Brad Nelson, who was driving truck Monday for Amundson.
The high winds predicted for today into Wednesday by the National Weather Service --including gusts up to 55 mph -- could knock some bean windrows around, which is why many were trying to get the beans they had cut harvested Monday, Schanilac said.
The accompanying rain predicted for today into Wednesday should help weight down the windrows and keep them from blowing around, he said.
Last month, USDA estimated average dry edible bean yields in North Dakota would end up being 14.5 bags an acre, down from 14.9 bags in 2010, while Minnesota farmers would see 17.3 bags per acre, down from 17.5 bags in 2010. Both states' yields look optimistic now as averages after the freeze last week hit hard.
Schanilac estimates that the hard frost might cut potential yields another 5 percent to 10 percent.
That's why there are stories recently floating among farmers of prices as high as $54 per bag being paid to farmers in the Valley, although getting official confirmation from the tightly held dry bean market is difficult.
Because of the relatively small size of the crop and market, there is no publicly traded arena, such as the wheat, corn and soybean futures markets, where prices are established.
The decreased acres and production this year of dry beans will support prices, encouraging more acres next year, Schanilac said.
"Our industry has to compete with different crops, primarily corn seems to be the trendsetter," he said. "If you want your crop planted, you have to aggressively promote the acres."
Translation: crop prices likely will move higher.