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Industry Leader Looks Back On 30 Years Of Bean Industry Growth

“It’s a great feeling.”


It’s the colour that keeps Jack Froese in the business of growing pulse crops.

Just as golden kernels give delight to a corn grower, so the sight of bright-red, white, brown and black beans flowing into a combine hopper inspires Froese.

“It’s a great feeling,” he says.

Froese has seen lots of colourful beans since he first custom grew a single crop of pintos in 1979. Today, seven different edible bean varieties flourish on the family farm near Winkler.

Froese is wi tness to an industry explosion over the last 30 years which made Manitoba the No. 1 edible bean-producing province in Canada today.

Back when he started, Froese was one of the few farmers in his region growing edible beans. In 1979, Manitoba farmers harvested just 2,500 acres of dry beans. Last year, the figure had swollen to 150,000 acres. At peak in 2002, Manitoba producers grew 310,000 acres.

But it wasn’t easy.

As a “high management” crop, edible beans are a lot of work to grow successfully, Froese said last week during a break at the Manitoba Special Crops Symposium in Winnipeg.

Beans don’t like wet conditions and are vulnerable to diseases. They’re high input, requiring significant expenditures on fertilizer, pesticides and seed. They also require constant field monitoring for yield and pest conditions. Market prices can be notoriously volatile.

With all these variables, why not grow something easier, like wheat or canola?

“It gets in your blood,” Froese said.

Of course, that’s not the only reason. Froese called growing beans “a risk-reward relationship” in which market returns can be well worth the extra effort.

That first became evident in 1986, when wet weather wrecked the navy bean crop in Ontario and Michigan, both major North American producers. Manitoba growers took advantage of the market shortage to sell navies for between 50 and 75 cents a pound – more than twice their break-even costs.

Bruce Brolley, a Manitoba Agriculture, Food and Rural Initiatives pulse crop specialist, said edible bean production took a big jump in Manitoba after 1996. The province’s sole sugar beet refinery had closed and beet growers were left looking for a high-value replacement crop.

The flat, fertile Red River Valley, with its warmer micro-climate, was ideal for bean growing, Brolley said.

Edible bean acreage more than quadrupled from 65,000 acres in 1996 to 310,000 acres in 2002, before falling back to 220,000 acres in 2003.

Beans took a serious hit in 2004, when crops failed to ripen during a cool, damp summer and harvesting fell to 110,000 acres.

All the while, however, varieties suitable to Manitoba conditions were coming out of the Agriculture and AgriFood research station at Morden.

As a result, Manitoba growers now have beans with high yield potential and seed quality able to meet processors’ exacting standards.

“Genet ics drives everything,” Brolley said.

Maybe, but culture has something to do with it, too.

One of the fascinations for Froese is the various traditions for pulse crops in different countries. Small red beans predominate in the Caribbean, Mediterranean countries favour kidney and cranberry beans, Cuba has its black beans, India its chickpeas and so on.

But less so in Canada. Here, pulses, despite their nutritional value, tend to be seen as a poor person’s food. Canada exports 80 to 85 per cent of its pulses instead of using them at home.

But that attitude may be changing, thanks to a recent $3.2 million pulse innovation project by Pulse Canada, of which Froese is a former president. The project funded research trials on the health benefits of consuming pulses.

Increased domestic consumption of beans and other pulse crops can only benefit Manitoba growers who are already at the cutting edge of industry technology, Froese said.

A longtime Manitoba Pulse Growers Association director, Froese, 56, retired from the MPGA board last week after serving on it for nearly 25 years.

“I’ve had my turn,” he said. “It’s a good time for me to step down. The association is in good hands.”

Figures released at the MPGA annual meeting Feb. 11 showed the association grossed nearly $884,000 in receipts from a mandatory refundable checkoff on pulse crop sales in 2008. MPGA allocated $257,000 to research. [email protected]

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