The recent dry edible bean harvest in Nebraska was symbolic of the 2019 growing season – it was a challenge.
In spite of a cool and wet spring, which the beans don’t enjoy, soil temperatures warmed up enough by June to get the crop off to a good start.
“They like ground temps around 60 degrees and that got the crop going in the right direction,” said Courtney Schuler, field operations manager for the Trinidad Benham Corporation in Bayard, Nebraska. “Things were looking good until we had some inopportune, widespread hailstorms at the end of August that put a significant dent in crop production.”
A significant number of dry bean acres were also short on irrigation, thanks to an irrigation tunnel collapse in Wyoming that affected almost 100,000 acres of farmland, half of which was in Nebraska. She said the tunnel collapse hit at the same time that farmers were just starting to consider irrigating their crops, so the timing was unfortunate, and it affected the final yield results.
“Even on fields that had optimum growing conditions, the yield results were down,” Schuler said. “We can attribute that to the low number of growing-degree days we had this year. The crop just didn’t have its normal number of heat units. The quality of the crop was better than we expected, it’s just that our volume was down.”
A good number of the state’s dry beans are grown in the Nebraska Panhandle. Gary Stone is a University of Nebraska Extension Educator in Scottsbluff, which is right in bean country.
The one saving grace for this year’s bean crop is that harvest weather cooperated and made it easier for farmers to get their beans out of the field, he said.
“The harvest process went well,” Stone said. “We didn’t have any bad weather to disrupt our harvest. Yields in this part of the state were down probably 40% due to hailstorms and less than ideal growing conditions. We just didn’t have enough heat units for the beans to fully develop.”
What makes it even more disappointing for bean farmers is yield results had been trending higher in the last couple of seasons. Recent results around the region had typically been between 2,400 and 2,500 pounds per acre (beans are sold by the hundredweight). Schuler said that average had been even higher in the two years before 2019.
“We had enjoyed two years of good growing conditions,” she said. “This year will take that average per acre right back down to where it was.”
Most of the state’s beans come from the Panhandle, as well as the southwest part of the state. Scotts Bluff and Box Butte are the major bean producing counties, and the next biggest for bean production are Morrill, Chase, and Cheyenne counites.
“Our No. 1 variety of bean we grow is called great northern,” Stone added. “That’s followed by light red kidney beans. There are also a few other varieties that farmers grow in lesser numbers.”
Schuler said the major varieties also include Pinto beans.
“We have a shorter growing season than some of the other bean-producing states, so great northern, light red kidney, and pinto beans fit the calendar a little better in Nebraska,” she said. “We typically plant the crop by June 1, with harvest starting around Sept. 10. In our area, it’s the last thing people plant and the first crop they harvest.”
The other big challenge with growing beans is they’re delicate. Schuler, who works for Trinidad Benham, a dry bean processor in Nebraska, said beans are sensitive to a lot of rough handling.
“They’ll split in half if they are handled like corn or soybeans,” she said. “We have a structure inside our big bins called a bean ladder, which takes beans to the bottom slowly. We don’t want them dropping between 40 and 60 feet to the bottom.
“Beans are also handled on belt conveyors, rather than augers,” Schuler added. “Augers are too hard on the beans. The overall delivery process for beans is slower than the other commodities because you don’t want to damage the crop as it goes into storage.”
The main market for Trinidad Benham is the domestic retail market. However, they also sell some of their beans into the export market.
“About 25% of the Nebraska bean crop goes overseas every year,” she said. “It’s a huge part of our business.”
Looking ahead to the 2020 growing season, Stone anticipates a typical dry bean crop.
“There will probably be close to 100,000 acres grown next year,” he said. “That’s close to the average grown every year in Nebraska.”