Tim Courneya sighed when asked how the region's 2019 dry bean harvest is faring.
"It's so hard to tell," said Courneya, executive vice president of the Northarvest Bean Growers Association, based in Frazee, Minn. "It's all over the board."
This much is clear: though a handful of dry bean farmers have finished or are close to completing their harvest, the overall harvest is well behind schedule and overall yields won't measure up to their excellent 2018 and 2017 levels.
Heavy, widespread rains in mid-September exacerbated an already gloomy outlook. Normally, 50% to 60% of the area's dry beans are harvested by the middle of September; only 10% were harvested by that time this year, Courneya estimated.
The late, wet spring hampered planting of dry beans, as well as wheat, slowing the normal maturity of both crops. Typically, many dry bean growers harvest their crop after they finish combining their wheat. Because wheat harvest is later than usual this year, dry bean harvest was pushed back, too, Courneya said.
North Dakota is the nation's leader in dry bean production, accounting for about one-third of the U.S. crop; farmers in South Dakota, Minnesota and Montana grow dry beans, too. There are many types of dry beans, including pinto, navy and black. Some are sold on the open market, others grown on contract.
Some parts of the region in which dry beans are grown had relatively dry conditions this spring and summer. Though that helped some farmers plant and harvest their dry beans on schedule, it also worked against yields, Courneya said.
Heavy rains this fall will work against yields in fields that once held the potential for good yields, he said.
North Dakota dry beans averaged about 1,800 pounds per acre last year. Yields this year will be closer to "more traditional levels," he said.
New and better varieties of dry beans, as well as farmers' greater experience in growing the crop, have pushed up yields over time. In 2010, for example, North Dakota averaged 1,490 pounds per acre of dry beans.
The prices that farmers receive for their dry beans generally is holding steady. For instance, pinto beans are fetching $21 to $22 hundredweight, compared with $20 to $22 per hundredweight last year, Courneya said.
Because yields are down this year in a key dry bean area, there could be upward pressure on bean prices.
"Prices need to sort themselves out and find their level," Courneya said.
Demand also will influence prices. Mexico is the leading importer of U.S. dry beans, with black beans especially popular with Mexican consumers. As a result, U.S. black bean exports to Mexico - and black bean acres in the Upper Midwest - have been rising.
Given the importance of the Mexican market, the U.S. dry bean industry is hopeful that the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the successor to the North American Free Trade Agreement, will be approved soon by the U.S. Congress, Courneya said.
"We need to get that done," he said.
Despite the production challenges this fall, there's reason to be optimistic about the future of dry beans, which increasingly are seen as affordable and nutritious by consumers.
Annual American consumption of dry beans peaked in the early 1940s at 9.6 pounds per person before beginning a long decline. But after bottoming out at 5.5 pounds per person in the early 1970s, annual consumption has rebounded steadily and currently stands at more than 7.5 pounds per person.
Courneya noted, however, that the supply of dry beans is rising, too.