Though 2021 planted U.S. dry bean acres are projected to decline 11% from a year ago, the outlook for what has been a rising star in U.S. agriculture remains bright, the executive director of a grower group says.

"We have a lot to be positive about," said Mitch Coulter, executive director of the Fargo, N.D.-based Northarvest Bean Growers Association, a cooperative of dry bean growers in North Dakota and Minnesota.

The list includes growing domestic demand; increasing demand from foreign customers, particularly Mexico; and new research efforts aimed at making dry beans more efficient to grow and more appealing to consumers.

The federal government projects U.S. farmers will plant 1.54 million acres of dry beans this year, down from 1.74 million planted acres in 2020. But keep that estimate in perspective. The 2021 projection is still sharply higher than the 1.29 million planted acres nationwide in 2019. Unattractive prices for competing crops and depleted supply of dry beans after the difficult 2019 harvest season pushed up 2020 planted acreage, Coulter and others say.

Strong competition from attractive prices for soybeans and other oilseeds is working against U.S. dry bean acres this year, though dry bean prices have risen, too, Coulter said.

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The region already is locked in drought, which doesn't bode well for dry beans and other crops. "Like the other crops, we'll need rain this spring to get our crop going," he said.

Important area crop

Though dry beans don't get as much attention as soybeans, corn and wheat, dry beans, sometimes called edible beans, are an important crop in much of the Upper Midwest. North Dakota is the nation's leader in dry bean production, accounting for about one-half of the U.S. planted crop, Minnesota is a leading producer, too.

There are many types of dry beans, including pinto, navy and black. Some are sold on the open market, others grown on contract. North Dakota grows a number of kinds of dry beans, with pinto, black and particularly navy beans most important. Minnesota is a top kidney bean producer, with navy and black beans significant in the state, too.

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.

This year, dry bean planted acreage in both North Dakota and Minnesota is projected to fall 45,000 acres, with planted acreage in Michigan, another top producer, declining an estimated 50,000 acres, according to the March 31 Prospective Plantings report from the National Agricultural Statistics Service, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers in Montana and South Dakota grow dry beans, too, but the March 31 report didn't include acreage estimates for those two states.

Ongoing rebound

Once, many Americans regularly ate dry beans. Annual American consumption of dry beans peaked in the early 1940s at 9.6 pounds per person before beginning a long decline. The reasons for that aren't completely clear, though falling consumption of food at home apparently played a large role, as did growing demand for convenient, easy-to-prepare foods.

But after bottoming out at 5.5 pounds per person in the early 1970s, annual consumption has rebounded steadily and currently stands at roughly 7.5 pounds per person. Dry beans are considered both affordable and nutritious, and they're increasingly popular with consumers looking to include more plant-based protein in their diets.

Coulter said his industry is optimistic that the trend will continue, pointing to increased interest from "flexitarians," among others. The word, a combination of flexible and vegetarian, refers to people who want to eat more plants and less meat.

By all accounts, the COVID-19 pandemic led Americans in general to eat more often at home. That boosted sales of dry beans, which typically are consumed at home, Coulter said.

His industry discovered, however, that some dry bean buyers/consumers were uncertain of how to best prepare dry beans.

"So we're going to make more educational efforts to help with that," he said.