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Bean outlook is ‘cautiously optimistic’
January 22, 2016 Jerry Purvis   

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Photo by Frank Marquez/Gering Citizen An area farmer combines a 2015 harvest of pintos near Menards in Scottsbluff. Area prices for beans have been stalled, prompting local farmers to contemplate their planting options for the 2016 growing season.

Depressed prices and product still in storage from the past two growing seasons could keep fewer acres of dry edible beans from going into the ground for 2016, but that could change as the growing season approaches.

“Market prices are still fairly low, so we expect acres to be down a little bit from last year,” said Dan Smith, chief agronomist with Kelley Bean Company. “We’re not sure how much because we’re not getting a lot of indication from the growers. Nothing is really going to make them money using today’s prices.”

Smith said he hopes the bean market will rebound early enough for growers to get more excited about planting.

About 95 percent of the local market are pintos, currently selling at $20 a hundredweight, and Great Northerns, selling at $18. Smith said current prices are about four or five dollars below their cost of production. Prices should be in the mid-20s for producers to turn a profit.

Along with depressed bean prices, there’s a lot of carryover from previous growing seasons. On the Northern markets, some of the 2014 crop is still being sold as well as 2015. Most of that crop is still in the growers’ hands, so the bean companies don’t own anything. The market will have to strengthen before growers are willing to sell.

“We’re sitting at the low end of the market right now,” Smith said. “It will definitely go up from here, but it could take a while, unless the government deal to buy a lot of the surplus goes through.”

Smith added that any market is subject to price fluctuations caused by numerous factors. Only a few years ago, Great Northerns were selling at $50 a hundredweight and pintos were in the $40 range. High prices encouraged more growers to plant, and that turned into an excess.

When it comes to bean production itself, direct harvest is increasing in popularity around the area. It starts with bean varieties that grow more upright than traditional varieties.

John Thomas, crops educator with the Box Butte County Extension Office, works quite a bit with direct harvest of dry edible beans.
Traditionally, beans are cut, windrowed, and then combined, requiring two passes through the fields.

With direct harvest, only one pass is made with the combine, eliminating the need for windrowing. This is especially advantageous for small farming operations.

“Over the course of the last five years, there’s been an increase in direct harvested beans,” Thomas said. “It’s a process that producers have to decide to go with before planting season.”

About 20 to 25 percent of the dry edible bean crop was direct harvested in 2015. It requires planting on level ground and choosing a bean variety that stands more upright than traditional beans.

“With direct harvesting, beans are less at risk of being scattered around the fields by wind,” Thomas said. “That method has been the trend for some time and I expect it to increase in future years. We don’t encourage or discourage producers from using direct harvesting, but we help educate those who are interested.”

Smith said he’s also seeing more producers in the North Platte Valley direct harvesting their beans. “It takes a couple of seasons for them to really get into it, but those who do are very happy with the results,” he said. “It’s the way of the future for most of them.”

Like any method, direct harvesting has advantages and disadvantages.
Thomas said direct harvesting can be a viable option for growers who have level ground in which to plant. However, there’s still a fair amount of furrow irrigation in the area, which doesn’t work with direct harvest.

Dean Keener, President of the Nebraska Dry Bean Growers Association, said that despite depressed prices and a wait-and-see outlook for many growers, the 2016 growing season is not all doom and gloom.

“The forecasts indicate we’re going to have an ample water supply this year,” Keener said. “The government agreeing to buy some of our 2014 surplus is also positive. I think there’s guarded optimism rolling forward.”

He added that global bean markets could turn around just as quickly as they went down. After bean prices rose significantly a few years ago and producers planted more acres, the export market shut down.

“We could have handled the glut on the market if exports would have stayed strong,” Keener said. “Buyers went to other markets where prices were cheaper.”

He said that in the Mitchell area, most growers have told him they will stay pretty close to the number of acres they’ve planted in the past because that’s their crop rotation.

“Most people are telling me that prices should come back up within the next few years,” Keener said. “In the meantime, growers will have to work at shaving a few dollars off their cost per acre.”
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