Dry edible beans, or field beans, come in a wide variety of market classes, including kidney bean, navy bean, pinto bean and black bean. These beans, although differing in seed size and coloring, are all just different types of a single species, Phaseolus vulgaris L. Originally domesticated in Central and South America over 7,000 years ago, dry beans moved their way northward through Mexico and spread across most of the continental U.S.
These beans were commonly grown with corn and sometimes squash. Now, instead of the Native American practice of planting dry beans and squash right among corn plants, a different bean, soybean from China, has found its place with corn. The other key difference, of course, is that our modern corn and soybean crops go primarily to feed livestock, instead of being strictly for human food like the old corn and dry bean system used for thousands of years.
Although grown on a much smaller acreage than soybeans, dry beans are still an important food crop in the U.S. The leading states in dry bean production are North Dakota, Michigan, Nebraska, Colorado, California and Idaho. Total U.S. production is approximately 2 million acres. Pinto beans are the market class occupying the largest acreage, followed by navy beans. Dry beans have occasionally been grown under contract in Missouri. Some varieties of dry beans are suitable for Missouri’s growing conditions, but the crop is more variable in yield and price than soybeans. However, the advantage of dry beans as an alternative is their relatively high price, ranging from $9 to $20 per bushel.
Dry beans are the same species as green beans (snap beans) commonly grown in gardens. If you’ve seen green beans growing, you have a good idea what dry beans look like, with the difference being that dry bean varieties have higher seed yields. Some dry bean varieties are vine-like garden bean varieties, while others are more of an erect, bushy plant like soybeans. Dry beans do not grow as vigorously as soybeans, usually reaching only about 18 to 24 inches in height. Pods, each containing 2 to 4 seeds, are borne upon the length of the stem.
Dry beans average about 22% protein in the seed. The amino acid profile of dry beans complements that of corn and other cereal grains, which is why the corn-bean diet was so standard through the Americas. Dry beans are sold in a variety of forms. Great Northerns, navy beans or mixes of beans, are the most likely to be sold as whole seeds in unprocessed form. Navy beans and kidney beans are both found in canned form, with kidney beans also common in chili mixes. Pinto beans and black beans are both made into refried beans, among other uses. Red beans are used for baked beans. Dry beans which do not meet quality standards for food use are typically sold for livestock feed. Like soybeans, dry beans have a trypsin inhibitor which prevents protein digestion in non-ruminant animals, including humans. Heat, applied during processing or home cooking, is needed to break down the trypsin inhibitor and make the beans fully digestible.
Markets and Economics
Farmers considering dry beans must be prepared to do some investigating into marketing options. Although there have periodically been buyers of dry beans that have arranged delivery points in Missouri, these contracts have not been stable for a multi-year period. Growers in some other midwestern states have found that if they formed a small dry bean cooperative, sometimes with a common storage facility, they improved their chances of attracting buyers and getting production contracts. It is best to have a contract for sale of the beans before ever planting them; otherwise, you can end up with a bin full of dry beans and no place to easily sell them. A few growers have been successful in direct marketing their beans, such as to a small scale food processor. The state department of agriculture’s marketing division may be able to help identify possible buyers.
If things go well during a season, production costs for dry beans should be similar to soybeans. However, extra costs can occur, due to possibilities of replanting, spraying for insects or diseases (more likely in dry beans than soybeans), or extra labor during harvest. Nitrogen fertilizer may be put on dry beans, which would not be the case with soybeans. Post-harvest costs are certainly higher for dry beans, both due to the extra care needed for cleaning and storage, and the possible transportation costs. Some buyers will want the seed bagged in large food grade bags before purchasing it.
On the positive side, gross returns from dry beans can easily be higher than for soybeans. While yields are typically lower, around 20 to 30 bushels per acre, prices are much higher, ranging from $9 to $20 per bushel. Achieving a good net profit is dependent on choosing an appropriate market class and good varieties to grow, keeping production costs under control and finding a cost efficient way to clean, store, and deliver the crop. Although dry bean prices fluctuate, as a food crop they do not follow the prices of corn and soybeans. Adding dry beans to the mix of crops on a farm can help spread out the risk from changes in market prices.