Beans may be the ‘food of the future’, but U.S. farmers aren’t planting enough

2021-11-15

In the early days of the pandemic, when uncertainty about the future was palpable, many Americans instinctively prepared for the worst by stockpiling one food in particular: beans. It makes sense—whether dried or canned, black, pinto, or kidney, beans are affordable, healthy, and last almost indefinitely without refrigeration. And they are just as well-suited for a moment of climate crisis as they are to a global public health emergency.

They are also an excellent source of protein, and on average, a serving results in about one-tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions compared to a serving of beef. The legumes use water efficiently and leave nitrogen in the soil for the next crop, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizer. The United Nations even declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, calling pulses (a category that includes beans, peas, and lentils) the “food of the future.”

Cult-favorite heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo was already seeing a major uptick in demand in the winter of 2019, thanks to the Instant Pot craze and the popular cookbook Cool Beans, said founder Steve Sando. Then, when the pandemic hit, Sando said the company had six-week wait times for orders and ultimately doubled its sales in 2020.

Now, a year and a half later, beans are still in demand, but American farmers are not lining up to plant them. In 2021, farmers harvested 300,000 fewer acres of beans compared to 2020.

The change is partially attributable to market forces and to increasing extreme weather related to climate change, factors that are also intertwined. And while some say changes in planting and yields are normal and part of the drop is due to overplanting in previous years, others in the industry are worried about the future of beans and whether they’ll be able to continue to source an adequate supply to keep American pantries stocked. Historically, the U.S. has imported a very small volume of beans, with significant production here for domestic supply and exports.

“It’s a little bit troubling in the long term to see where this shakes out,” said Mark Kirsten, who is the president of the trade group California Bean Shippers Association and runs a wholesale bean business in Lodi, California, that has been in his family for decades.

On the flipside, Tony Roelofs, vice president of the pulse division at Oregon-based Columbia Grain International, is confident that the steady rise in legume consumption over the last 20 to 25 years will push production in the right direction. If he’s right, it could move the food system toward a more climate-friendly future. “As we continue to grow our population on a worldwide level and water supply and arable land demand continue to be problematic . . . pulse crops have a great spot,” he said. “It’s cheaper protein and it’s more environmentally friendly protein.”

The Commodity Crop Effect

Since the 1970s, per capita consumption of legumes has more than tripled in the U.S. overall, with Americans steadily eating more black beans and black-eyed peas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Production, however, hasn’t followed a linear upward trend. Between the 2012 and 2017 there was a slight uptick in acres planted, but after a peak in 2017 and 2018, production fell drastically in 2019, shot back up in 2020, and dropped again in 2021. (These statistics don’t include chickpeas or lentils, which have seen more significant growth in acres planted over the past decade but also dipped down in recent years.)

Depending on the variety, beans are grown in many different states across the country. In a given year, Camellia, a fourth-generation bean company based in New Orleans, might get its limas from growers on the West Coast, black-eyed peas from the South, red kidneys from the middle of the country, and pintos from the Dakotas, said Vince Hayward, CEO of Camellia.

“Every year it’s a comparison between corn prices, wheat prices, or soybean prices, and farmers make an educated decision on what they need to grow to support their farms and their families.”

Hayward and every other industry source contacted for this article said that a major increase in prices for commodity crops was the biggest factor affecting supply. When those prices rise, farmers make less space to plant dry beans (other than soybeans, the majority of which are not eaten by people). “Every year it’s a comparison between corn prices, wheat prices, or soybean prices, and farmers make an educated decision on what they need to grow to support their farms and their families,” Hayward explained. This year, the price differential was more extreme.

In the northern Plains states, high prices for corn and soy, along with other market forces that favor those commodities, have also led to farmers plowing up grassland to plant those crops. In September, the USDA projected 2021 average prices for corn and soybeans—$5.45 and $12.90 per bushel, respectively—to be the third-highest since 1960. Depending on a few factors, black beans might command three times as much per bushel compared to corn, but corn yields are so high, farmers could make double or more per acre.

“That just makes it very tough for specialty crops,” said Tom Harmon, general manager of Jack’s Bean Company, a Holyoke, Colorado-based company that aggregates red kidney and pinto beans from about 30 growers annually in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. “We have to [offer] a pretty high price to be able to compete . . . when [farmers] can grow a conventional crop that’s much easier.”

At Rancho Gordo, Sando was frustrated by this push and pull of the commodity system, in which yields per acre dominate the conversation, so he has mostly worked outside of it, creating direct long-term relationships with farmers who grow for Rancho Gordo every year. But as he attempts to meet increasing demand, it can still be difficult to convince new farmers to plant heirloom varieties since the yields can be even lower than they are for conventional beans.

“We have really good farm relationships, but still, they’re not enough, and that’s what we constantly work on,” said Sando. “This year, we did a 20-acre test farm near Lodi so we could show potential farmers what we’re doing and that it isn’t voodoo. There’s this old-school mentality [that says] each acre has to produce so many pounds . . . but the end result is we pay more and we charge more and everybody wins. Our [beans] are more expensive, but they’re still pennies per serving.”

Compared to corn or soybeans, dry beans are also much riskier, Harmon said. Timing, harvest, and the machinery required are all more complicated, and whereas weather damage to a corn crop may not matter so much if that corn is headed for a silo to be fed to animals, kidney beans headed for a clear bag displayed on supermarket shelves cannot be destroyed or damaged by extreme weather like hailstorms.

And while Harmon said, anecdotally, storms haven’t gotten worse in his region over the last several years, extreme weather conditions have significantly affected production elsewhere, adding to the risks growers face and likely adding to the list of reasons they might choose to plant a higher-priced corn crop rather than risk a loss.

Extreme Weather Gets Worse

“The weather is a little more extreme than what we’re used to,” Hayward observed. “It’s either too wet or too dry.”

The data backs up his assertion. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 2020 and 2021 have seen the most “billion-dollar weather events,” storms that cause a billion dollars or more in damage, in history. And a third of the damage has happened in the past five years.

Dry conditions hit bean farmers especially hard this year. “It’s certainly one of the worst droughts we’ve ever experienced in North Dakota,” said Columbia Grain’s Roelofs. Drought also devastated North America’s oat fields this year, leading to the smallest harvest ever.

“If farmers only have a certain amount of water, the question is: Where am I going to use it? And beans aren’t going to fall at the top of that list most of time.”

Water scarcity was even worse in California, where the past 12 months were the driest in a century, partially due to higher temperatures caused by climate change. Kirsten said that for farmers in the southern part of the state, water was in especially short supply, and when farmers have to plant fewer acres in order to conserve, they make the choice to plant higher value crops on those limited acres.

“In California, beans are not at the bottom of the list, but they’re certainly not the top-tier crops,” he said. And while beans require less water than many other crops and serve the rotational purpose of fixing nitrogen in between other higher value crops like tomatoes, he said, farmers may not be thinking that far ahead when resources are scarce year after year. “If they only have [a certain] amount of water, the question is: Where am I going to put it? And beans aren’t going to fall at the top of that list most of time.”

Everyone in the industry said that these weather disruptions, high commodity prices, and some small pandemic-related shocks like increased trucking demand have combined to squeeze supply in a major way. But they don’t agree on how long these issues will last. Hayward and Kirsten both expressed serious concern about the future, while Harmon and Roelofs were more optimistic.

Either way, they’ll try to convince more farmers to plant beans, especially since demand doesn’t seem to be waning. While Rancho Gordo’s Steve Sando thought the extreme uptick in sales in 2020 might have been due entirely to panic buying, sales in 2021 were only down 4 percent from that peak, he said, suggesting appetites are still strong.

Rancho Gordo farmers in Mexico lost crops due to terrible flooding this year, and Sando worries about extreme heat and droughts that could impact his growers in California, but in that context, he hopes farmers will increasingly want to plant beans, for the nitrogen-fixing potential and the pods that get spit back out into the fields as green manure. When he first set out to sell heirloom beans, he often wondered why more American farmers weren’t growing more, considering how delicious, healthy, environmentally friendly, and affordable they are.

“It turns out there’s a whole world of reasons why [they don’t], but I’ve been super lucky and . . . I didn’t like that reality, so I created my own,” he said. “There are so many horrible things that come down the pike, and you have to just do your best and carry on as if there is going to be a next summer.”

civileats.com, 15 November 2021
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