Protein powerhouse: Growing opportunities with dry edible beans
Precision ag specialist Greta Birch, right, and Agronomist Marcie Oehlke, second from left, discuss preseason planning with growers, from left, Erik Peterson, Greg Peterson and Davin Peterson.
A western Nebraska cooperative feeds the world and fuels economic stability for owners.
The humble edible bean is an economic star in western Nebraska. Capitalizing on dependably arid growing conditions, a cooperative-based network of growers and processing expertise, Western Cooperative Company (WESTCO) based in Alliance, Neb., has become a major force in the global dry bean market.
In 1983, WESTCO created New Alliance, a subsidiary dedicated to sourcing, processing and marketing edible dry beans, primarily Great Northern and pinto beans. “New Alliance was started as another option for growers in and around Box Butte County,” says David Briggs, WESTCO general manager. “The Great Northern bean is grown here almost exclusively for the whole world. Growers in this region produce about 80 percent of the world’s supply.”
About 60 percent of the beans raised by WESTCO owners are shipped to quality-conscious customers, from Mexico and Haiti to France and Turkey. The rest are sold to canners, packagers and food processors across the United States.
Dry beans have been the staple of diets around the world for centuries and are seeing new popularity in the U.S., says Jon Sperl, the New Alliance merchandiser.
“Beans are a cheap source of protein and pulse crops — lentils, peas and beans — are used around the world for that reason. In the U.S. a hundred years ago, our forefathers were eating more of those foods as well, then we swung to more middle-class meat-based protein diets. Now U.S. preferences seem to be swinging back to a more plant-based diet due to health concerns, while other countries are moving away from lentils and pulses and eating more chicken, pork and beef.
“The Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and Haiti are huge pinto bean consumers,” he adds. Because those countries work to protect their domestic market, there’s a narrow window for selling and shipping to the island nations. “Our crop comes off in September and we have until the end of the year to get beans in country, meaning a shipment has to have gone to Houston or Miami and gotten onto a boat and arrived at its destination by the end of the year because that’s when the domestic market is coming on.”
Supplementing the cooperative’s list of steady customers is a mix of detective work, population science, creative thinking and old-fashioned cold-calling. “The French really like Great Northerns, so we call canners and packagers in that part of Europe,” says Sperl. Bulgaria, Hungary and Luxembourg are other targets for the white beans.
“With pinto beans, we look at population centers like the southeastern U.S., since many people originally from the island nations are now in Florida. California and Texas have large Hispanic populations and access to Mexico, so that’s where we look for buyers.”
After more than two decades marketing corn and soybeans, Sperl says he enjoys the process of matching New Alliance beans with customers. “It’s a relationship-based business. You have to know your customer, you have to know your bean and you have to know your growers. We’re sending one- and two-pound samples around the world to represent our product. Our end customers see the whole bean, so there’s a real passion for the production, the processing and the buyer.”
Dave Weber, who manages New Alliance, shows samples that link every batch of edible beans to their field of origin.
Samples are sent to prospective customers who find value in beans processed under the New Alliance green triangle logo.
The New Alliance green triangle logo represents that three-way relationship and has built a strong following. “In the Dominican Republic, they like our white bag with the big green triangle on it,” says Dave Weber, the WESTCO division manager who oversees New Alliance. “There’s loyalty to that brand.”
Handle with Care
Bean buyers typically want uniform, unblemished beans with perfectly smooth seed coats, explains Sperl. Beans with slices or cracks in the seed coat turn to mush when cooked during canning, so beans that pass a soak test to confirm seed coat integrity earn a premium for the grower.
“Dry beans are a value-added commodity crop,” says Erik Peterson, who grows dry beans, corn and dairy-quality alfalfa near Gering, Neb., with his father, Greg, and brother, Davin. “We took a big step to maintain that value at harvest by buying a specialty combine designed in Brazil. It’s a pull-type combine that uses gentle threshing and a tipping hopper.
Growers deliver dry edible beans directly to one of four New Alliance facilities for storage and eventual processing, including this facility in Alliance, Neb. Gentle handling maintains bean quality from field to customer.
“We cut and windrow the beans in the morning when there’s dew on them to try to minimize losses due to pods dropping or shattering, then come through with the combine when they’re dry,” he adds. “The pods are fragile and if they get too dry, Great Northern pods will pop open and pinto pods will just drop off the stalk.”
New Alliance has made the same sort of investment with storage bins equipped with ladder systems to carefully move beans and more efficient unloading equipment that gets semis in and out in 10 minutes while protecting bean quality.
Inside New Alliance processing facilities in Alliance, Gering and Bridgeport, Neb., beans move on conveyor belts and in bucket lifts to avoid damage. They pass by electronic eyes that trigger a puff of air to blast split or damaged beans off the line and into a separate stream. Split beans can be used for processed foods like refried beans and bean paste.
Beans are warehoused in 2,000- and 3,500-pound totes.
Beans are moved onto rail cars or containers in totes or smaller bags for shipping to customers around the world.
While adding efficiency, investments in equipment are also critical to maintaining food safety certification, says Weber. “Over the last four years, we’ve updated three of our four lines. For many of our foreign customers, especially those in the European Union, food safety is a big thing. We’re in our third year of being certified by the British Retail Consortium — it’s a worldwide food safety certification that lets customers know we’re doing the right things and ensuring traceability.”
Every load of beans delivered to New Alliance is sampled and tracked so each product shipment can be traced to the field where the beans were grown and the day they were processed.
As a specialty crop, dry beans demand kid-glove treatment. An endless list of factors can hurt bean production and quality. The relatively fragile and highly variable soils around Alliance just outside the Sandhills add to the complex production system.
A 90-day crop, dry beans are the last rows planted in the spring and the first to see the combine in the fall, with harvest beginning in late August. Preventing erosion means keeping a lid on soil in the off-season, says Peterson.
“Beans leave very little residue and we often get warm, windy winters, so we have potential for wind erosion. We try to establish a cover crop like wheat, oats or rye right after beans come off the field.” Strip-tillage helps preserve soil-saving crop residue, maintains acceptable emergence and helps build organic matter.
With an average of 15.5 inches of moisture per year, the arid climate is perfect for dry beans, but precision irrigation is necessary for optimal yields. The Petersons add 18 to 20 inches of water via center pivot irrigation systems. “We vary plant population based on soil type and expected yield potential,” he says. They began yield-mapping in 2001.
“The big thing we deal with here is soil variability,” says Greta Birch, precision ag specialist with WESTCO. “We can have five soil types in a field, so managing for that is a big piece of what I’m looking to help the Petersons do. It all comes down to asking, ‘How can we either boost yield and make more money or cut back and save some money?’ It plays into environmental sustainability, too.”
Birch and Agronomist Marcie Oelke use an extensive zone-mapping system to test soils and create fertilizer plans, then develop prescription maps to inform variable-rate fertilizer applications.
“We pull 8-inch soil samples to test for micronutrients and phosphorus and 36-inch samples to check nitrogen levels,” Oelke explains.
From left, Erik Peterson, Marcie Oehlke. Davin Peterson, Greta Birch and Greg Peterson review yield maps and crop rotation plans.
Producing a food-grade product puts added pressure on other inputs. “Our weed-control program is crucial, since there are few herbicides we can use,” says Peterson. “We used to use a lot of hand labor, but we’ve been able to handle weeds pretty well with herbicide programs, which helps reduce costs.”
The restrictions extend to other crops in the rotation. “On early crops in the rotation, like corn, we’re restricted on what we can use because any herbicide residual from the prior year can affect the dry bean crop,” he adds.
The 2019 growing season was one of the toughest on record for New Alliance producers. A series of weather events and irrigation system failures cut yields drastically. “We had several hailstorms mid-season,” says Weber. “We probably lost a third of our bean crop in 12 hours.”
The short crop and good worldwide demand helped boost bean prices to about $32 per hundredweight. A more typical price is $25 per hundredweight.
WESTCO is the only dry bean player organized as a cooperative and that gives growers extra confidence and value when selling to New Alliance, says Peterson. “When you’re marketing dry beans, there’s little information from year to year. WESTCO offers contracts early on to reduce our risk, but if the market goes up, we can still participate in that increased price through patronage.”
Briggs reports patronage paid to New Alliance growers has averaged about $2 per hundredweight.
“Over the years, entities have tried to come in and buy dry beans, offering big contracts to make a quick buck,” adds Peterson. “Growers delivered the crop and the next thing they knew the company was bankrupt and gone and so were their beans. It’s a nice feeling of security knowing WESTCO is standing behind the contract, along with providing great service and the right recommendations. With dry beans, every decision you make, every input you put into the ground has to be right. There’s not a lot of margin for error.”
To choosy buyers — at food companies or those cooking for their families — bean color makes all the difference.
With Great Northern beans, brilliant white is best. Dry weather and precise production and processing help New Alliance beans meet that standard.
“The beans stay bright white for years, and that’s a sign of quality,” says David Briggs, WESTCO general manager, “but with pinto beans, the beans get darker almost every day. Six months after you harvest a pinto bean, it’s a different color. And the market doesn’t like dark pinto beans. They taste the same, but they look different.”
“Some markets like the Dominican Republic are really particular about pinto bean color,” says Dave Weber, who manages New Alliance. “North Dakota grows about six times as many pinto beans as Nebraska, Colorado and Wyoming, but the pinto beans from western Nebraska and New Alliance are known for being bigger, having better color and holding their color longer.”
Pinto bean breeders thought they’d solved the problem a few years ago by developing varieties of light-colored pinto beans. The beans looked great, but consumers balked when the light-colored beans made dishes like refried beans look more like potatoes than traditional flavorful beans. The new varieties fell flat and growers and processers returned to managing around weather, handling and time to control pinto bean color.
SEE MORE: Watch a video on New Alliance.