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Karley family handles dry edible bean production from the field to the exports

Denise and Jim Karley own Karley Farm, Johnstown Bean Co. and North Central Commodities Inc., their son Dylan Karley, owns Dylan Karley Farm and is general manager of Johnstown Bean Co. and North Central Commodities Inc, and his sister, Nora Hubbard, is office manager and controller of the two businesses.

A woman wearing a white shirt, a woman wearing a blue and white shirt and two men, one wearing a tan shirt and one wearing a green  shirt stand behind a counter with a Johnstown Bean Co. sign.
From left, Nora Hubbard is office manager and controller of Johnstown Bean Co. and North Central Commodities, Denise and Jim Karley own Karley Farm, Johnstown Bean Co. and North Central Commodities Inc., and their son Dylan Karley owns Dylan Karley Farm and is general manager of Johnstown Bean Co. Photo taken Aug. 23, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek
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JOHNSTOWN, N.D. — Growing, processing and marketing black and pinto and beans is all in a day's work for the Karley family.

Denise and Jim Karley own Karley Farm, Johnstown Bean Co. and North Central Commodities Inc., their son Dylan Karley, owns Dylan Karley Farm and is general manager of Johnstown Bean Co. and North Central Commodities Inc, and his sister, Nora Hubbard, is office manager and controller of the two businesses. The farms and businesses are located in northwest Grand Forks County.

Denise does Karley Farm’s accounting and the advertising for Johnstown Bean Co., Jim works on the farm and in the company’s office, Dylan farms, works in the office and travels internationally for North Central Commodities and Nora manages the offices of Johnstown Bean Co. and North Central Commodities Inc.

A hand is in a tote of pinto beans
Johnstown Bean Co. general manager Dylan Karley shows the contents of a tote of pinto beans that will be shipped. Photo taken Aug. 22, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

Though the Karleys play different roles, their goal is the same: to raise, process and sell edible beans that are a high-quality product and to provide customers with an excellent protein source.

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The Karleys’ 50-year connection to edible beans began when Don Lindholm, a pioneer in the industry and Denise’s father, began growing pinto and black beans.

The late Lindholm was an innovative farmer who modified his machinery to make farmwork more efficient and in 1974 was one of the first farmers in the Red River Valley to grow pinto beans.

A man wearing blue jeans and a man wearing a tan shirt and blue jeans stand in a pinto bean field.
Dylan and Jim Karley, talk about their pinto bean field northeast of Johnstown, North Dakota, on Aug. 22, 2023.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

"I still remember my dad handing me a coffee can and saying, 'Take these to Forest River (Bean Co.),' and then looking in the coffee can and saying 'What are these?'" Denise recalled. She was familiar with her dad's other crops of small grains and potatoes, but there had never been pinto beans grown on the farm, and the family rarely ate them.

That has changed drastically as Denise not only is an integral part of the family farm and their companies, she's also known for her signature soup, which contains several types of edible beans.

Jim, who met Denise in a photography class at Minnesota State University Moorhead in 1974, helped Lindholm on his farm near Johnstown during summer break for a few years, then in 1977, Jim and Denise were married and moved to an apartment in Gilby, North Dakota, about five miles north of Johnstown.

Jim planned to attend the University of North Dakota to finish his degree in chemistry, but Lindholm proposed that, instead, they start an edible bean business that Lindholm would finance and Jim would run.

It was a drastic change in career plans for someone who had grown up in Moorhead, Minnesota, and had planned to become a dentist. But Lindholm’s offer was too good to pass up.

“Her father was pretty persuasive,” Jim said, with a laugh.

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In 1978 Jim and Lindholm founded Johnstown Bean Co., an edible bean processing plant, and North Central Commodities Inc., a company that markets pinto and black beans internationally.

A green bag with a black Johnstown Bean Co. label.
Johnstown Bean Co. markets black beans around the world in bags 50 pounds and larger. Photo taken Aug. 22, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

Neither North Central Commodities Inc. owner knew much about global marketing when they founded the company.

“Pretty much self taught,” Jim said. Besides attending many hours of seminars learning about international finance details that included export letters of credit and export credit guarantee programs, Jim learned about the importance of developing relationships with his customers and doing business one-on-one.

One way he fostered the relationships was to travel to Mexico, South America and overseas, including the countries of Angola and Africa. Developing relationships with Johnstown Bean Co.’s foreign customers not only helps it retain their business, but also is a benefit to the company because getting to know his customers reduces his credit risk, Dylan said.

During the past 20 years, Johnstown Bean Co. has increased its number of customers and expanded its export of black beans which, because of varietal improvements and quality, are viewed as a premium product in Mexico.

A hand holding black beans.
Varietal and quality improvements have made northern Plains black beans a premium product in Mexico. Photo was taken at Johnstown Bean Co. on Aug. 23, 2022.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

Besides Mexico, North Central Commodities markets millions of pounds of black turtles and pintos to countries around the world, including South Africa, Angola and the Dominican Republic. The company cleans and processes the beans it buys from farmers for wholesalers, packagers and canners in bags that are 50 pounds or larger.

Demand for black beans has also has grown in popularity in the United States, especially in the millennial generation.

“Black beans is the only class of beans that consumption is growing,” Dylan said.

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Between 1970 and 2017, black bean consumption increased to 1 pound per capita, according to the U.S. Agriculture Departement Economic Research Service.

Millennials who grew up eating them at Mexican sit-down and fast food restaurants now are encouraging their children to eat black beans, which, besides being served in restaurants, are a popular side dish at family dinners. Meanwhile, black beans are used in the United States as ingredients in other foods such as hummus, crackers and pasta.

For the first 15 years, about 95% of the edible beans Johnstown Bean Co. purchased from its farmer customers were pinto beans and the remainder were black beans.

The percentage of black beans the company purchases has grown as demand for them has increased, some years resulting in a price premium to pintos.

“For us, as a company, we really put a focus on this area on expanding black beans,” Dylan said. “Over the past few years, it has been 60% pinto beans and 40% black beans."

A hand opens a pinto bean pod.
Jim Karley looks at the progress of his pinto bean crop on Aug. 22, 2022. The pinto beans were planted late and harvest was still a few weeks away, so the pinto beans hadn't yet striped.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

Most of the edible beans that Johnstown Bean Co. buys are from farmers within a 50-mile radius of the plant, but some customers haul their crop from as far away as southeast Saskatchewan and north-central South Dakota to Johnstown.

Dylan, 41, learned about the edible bean business from the ground up.

“I’ve planted every single acre of edible beans since I was 14 years old," he said.

Besides black and pinto beans, the Karleys grow wheat and soybeans in their crops rotation.

As August waned, Jim and Dylan were harvesting wheat. The combine serves dual purposes during the harvest, not only cutting the grain and separating out the seeds, but also as Dylan’s office.

“Nearly everything can be done mobile, through my cell phone,” Dylan said.

“He’s in the combine with a headset and he’s doing business in the field,” Jim said.

That business sometimes takes Dylan off of the combine and heading to an airport to board a flight to Mexico where he gives a first-person description of the quality of the crop, its quantity and the market dynamics. Though today’s technology would allow him to meet with his customers virtually, they prefer talking to him in person.

“It’s still a much more old-fashioned face-to-face business,” he said.

The opportunity to travel around the world and work in international trade was a strong selling point for Dylan to get involved in the family business.

A white building that is the Johnstown Bean Co and North Central Commodities office.
The Johnstown Bean Co. and North Central Commodities Inc. office is located at the north end of Johnstown, North Dakota, in northwest Grand Forks County.
Ann Bailey / Agweek

“It’s always been a really fast-paced and diverse aspect of our business,” he said,“ I grew up in it and experiencing it, and I always kind of just thought all of agriculture was like.”

He has since learned that his family’s business isn’t all that common.

“I think one of the unique things we have is we get to see the process of edible beans from start to finish and, more importantly, food from the field level, to the processing, the marketing,” Dylan said. “The world-wide distribution of it is really unique — to see it from start to finish.”

Ann is a journalism veteran with nearly 40 years of reporting and editing experiences on a variety of topics including agriculture and business. Story ideas or questions can be sent to Ann by email at: abailey@agweek.com or phone at: 218-779-8093.
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