Dry bean prices have rallied this winter, which in a normal spring would encourage Upper Midwest farmers to plant more of the crop. This isn't a normal spring.
"It's just really hard to know what to expect with planting this year," said Tim Courneya, executive director of the Northarvest Bean Growers Association based in Frazee, Minn.
Exceptionally difficult planting and harvest conditions in 2019 hammered dry bean production in the Upper Midwest, which dominates U.S. production of the crop. North Dakota farmers planted 600,000 of the 1.237 million dry bean acres, with Minnesota farmers planting another 175,000 acres. Farmers in South Dakota and Montana raise the crop, too.
U.S. farmers harvested 23.8 million hundredweight of dry beans in 2019, down a whopping 36% from 2018, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Agricultural Statistics Service.
With production down so much, the market pushed up prices this winter to encourage dry bean farmers to sell what dry beans they still had in storage, Courneya said.
Unfortunately, "Nobody has much left to sell," he said.
Weather-reduced 2019 production also means less dry beans are available for seed this spring. So farmers who want to increase dry bean acreage will be hard-pressed to do so, Courneya said.
Unharvested 2019 crops still standing in fields further complicates what is planted, and when, this spring, he said.
There are many types of dry beans, including pinto, navy and black. Most are sold on the open market, with an estimated 25% sold under contract, Courneya said.
Despite weather-related uncertainty this spring, the long-term outlook for dry beans remains bright, Courneya said.
In the early 1940s, American consumption of dry beans peaked at 9.6 pounds per person annually. A long decline then began, with annual per-capita consumption bottoming out at 5.6 pounds per person in the early 1970s. Since then, however, annual consumption is rebounding, in part because of growing interest in plant-based protein, and now stands at more than 7.5 pounds per person.
Dry bean acreage began increasing in North Dakota in the 1980s and 1990, reflecting the growing consumer demand as well as farmers' search for crops that held greater profit potential. New and better seed varieties, as well as farmers' greater skill at growing dry beans, also led to increased interest it.
Mexico is an important and growing buyer of U.S. dry beans, so recent U.S. approval of the U.S. Mexico Canada Trade Agreement was welcome, Courneya said.
Long-term positives aside, "This will be an interesting spring. I think we all want to see what happens," he said.