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Strong start for dry bean crop, but concerns exist

Tim Courneya says Upper Midwest farmers are emailing him photos of their "picture-perfect" dry bean fields, a good indication of how well the 2018 crop has developed so far.

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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 it, too. (Colorado State University photo)

Tim Courneya says Upper Midwest farmers are emailing him photos of their "picture-perfect" dry bean fields, a good indication of how well the 2018 crop has developed so far.

But Courneya, executive vice president of the Northarvest Bean Growers Association, based in Frazee, Minn., notes the crop won't be harvested for months and "will take some hits from the weather" before then.

He also says that while the long-term outlook for dry beans is promising, unattractive prices and export concerns are working against it this summer. About 20 percent of the U.S. dry bean crop is exported.

"Anytime they go into these trade agreements and agriculture might be affected, we shake a little. We just hope they don't screw up the agricultural environment," Courneya says, stressing he has no insight into how the Trump administration's efforts ultimately will work out

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 it, too. There are many types of dry beans, including pinto, navy and black. Some are sold on the open market, others grown on contract.

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Prices available to growers vary by the type of bean and whether the beans are sold on the open market or on contract, so generalizing about prices can be risky. But prices of 20 cents to 24 cents per pound are not uncommon, and that was too low to induce some farmers to plant it, Courneya said.

Consequently, some farmers planted more soybeans, which typically are easier and less risky to grow than dry beans. Some farmers also planted canola on fields on which they might have planted dry beans if the latter's price had been higher, Courneya said.

In late March, the National Agricultural Statistics Service, or NASS, an arm of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimated that U.S. farmers would plant 2.03 million acres of dry beans, down from 2.09 million acres in 2017.

North Dakota dry bean acreage will fall to 620,000 from 705,000 a year ago, NASS predicted.

Acreage clearly has declined, though it's too early to be sure of how much, Courneya says.

Fewer planted acres will cut into production, reducing supplies and eventually benefitting dry bean prices, he says.

Though 2018 planting got off to a slow start after a late spring, farmers eventually planted their dry beans, which have benefitted from widespread rains. "It looks very good now, but Mother Nature will have the final word. She always does," Courneya says.

U.S. dry bean farmers are watching global trade negotiations as well as weather conditions this summer.

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Potential revision in the North American Free Trade Agreement, which the Trump administration is renegotiating, is among the concerns. Mexico is the leading importer of U.S. dry beans. Blacks beans are 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.

So far, however, it doesn't appear that Mexico will place restrictions on U.S. bean imports, Courneya says.

But the European Union - retaliating to U.S. imposition of tariffs of imported steel and aluminum - has published a tariff list that includes dark red kidney beans, which are grown and exported by Upper Midwest farmers.

Specifics of the EU tariff are unclear, so it's uncertain how much U.S. exports of dark red kidneys will be affected. Nonetheless, any potential disruption in sales to an established market is worrisome, Courneya says.

Long-term trends

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.

Though demand is growing, supply is growing, too, as farmers get better at growing dry beans and gain access to new, better varieties, Courneya says.

North Dakota harvested a record 1,810 pounds per acre of dry beans last year, up from 1,490 in 2010 and 1,450 in 2000, according to NASS.

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