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Jan. 6 is National Bean Day

Beans are sorted at a processing facility in Idaho in this file photo. Jan. 6 is National Bean Day and Idaho farmers play a critical role in the U.S. dry bean industry by supplying most of the seed to grow those beans.

By Sean Ellis

Idaho Farm Bureau Federation

POCATELLO – Today, Jan. 6, is National Bean Day and while it may be one of the more obscure holidays, maybe it shouldn’t be given how dry beans flew off grocery shelves earlier on during the COVID outbreak.

American consumers seem to know, at least intuitively, that dry beans have been one of the world’s staple crops for a long time for a good reason.

Not only do beans provide a significant source of protein and fiber, they are low in fat and high in complex carbohydrates and iron.

And they can be stored for a long time.

In other words, they are a good food source to have on your shelves at any time but particularly during uncertain times. Consumers recognized that early during the pandemic and dry beans flew off shelves rapidly in many areas.

“Now even more than ever, beans have proven how much of a valuable, affordable, shelf-stable and nutritious food source they are,” said Idaho Bean Commission Administrator Andi Woolf-Weibye.

The United States is a global leader in dry bean production and it all starts in Idaho.

Idaho ranks fifth among the states in dry bean production but is the top bean seed producer and provides roughly 90 percent of all bean seed in the United States, according to Don Tolmie, production manager for Treasure Valley Seed Co., one of many bean seed companies located in the Gem State.

“Idaho is the key to successful bean production in the United States,” he said.

“We’re far and away the No. 1 seed producer of dry beans and garden beans in the United States,” says Magic Valley farmer Carl Montgomery, president of Jerome County Farm Bureau.

U.S. farmers plant between 1.5 and 1.7 million acres of edible dry beans each year and the vast majority of the seed needed to grow those beans mostly comes from Idaho farmers. 

As Woolf-Weibye puts it, “It all starts with the seed. No dry bean seed, no dry beans.”

Because of a rigorous testing and certification program, Idaho bean seed is certified 100 percent disease-free.

“That certification process is a real important part of the dry bean industry here in Idaho,” Montgomery said.

Most of Idaho’s dry beans are grown in the Treasure Valley in southwestern Idaho and the Magic Valley in the southcentral part of the state.

The climate in these areas is ideal for growing dry bean seed because the dry weather and low humidity results in low disease pressure, Montgomery said.

There is also ample irrigation in southern Idaho because of the reservoir systems, he added.

“Because of these factors, we can produce high-quality seed here,” he said.

Because of the certification process and ideal climatic conditions, “Our yields and quality are unmatched in the United States,” Tolmie said.

Dry beans have been an important part of Idaho farmers’ rotations for many decades and while they are not necessarily one of the state’s top cash crops on an annual basis, they play an important role in Idaho’s overall agricultural industry, Tolmie said.

“I think the bean industry is not the shiny Corvette; it’s the ’68 Chevy pickup with a few dents in it but it serves its purpose,” he said. “It provides a nice rotation crop and it’s a good solid crop for the state. For the producers who take the time to do it right, it can be a very profitable crop.”

According to USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, Idaho farmers planted 65,000 acres of dry beans in 2020. That’s up 38 percent over what was planted in the state in 2019.

A challenging bean production season during 2019 in Canada and some of the United States’ main bean-producing states resulted in a significant reduction in the supply of dry beans, according to industry leaders.

As a result, dry bean prices heading into the 2020 planting season were up 25-40 percent, depending on variety, over the same period in 2019.

That made them a nice alternative to many other crops and Idaho and U.S. dry bean acreage shot up as a result. U.S. acreage increased 23 percent this year, to 1.58 million acres.

Tolmie said Idaho bean yields and quality were good this year and prices were acceptable.

“For the first year in my memory, we didn’t have any significant weather interruptions this year,” he said.

“It was a good year for bean producers,” Montgomery said.