Manitoba Becomes Bean Champion

Commentary, Agriculture, Robert Sopuck

Quick, what is Manitoba’s fastest growing crop? If you guessed wheat, barley or potatoes, you’d be wrong. It’s edible beans.

These are beans that we can directly eat, as opposed to others like soybeans whose use requires processing. Edible beans are the familiar navy, kidney, black and pinto beans, all of which have a wide variety of direct food uses, including that old staple, pork and beans.

Edible beans were for years considered a southerly crop more suitable to areas with long growing seasons. Not any more, new and better bean varieties have hit the market that allow these crops to be grown in “non-traditional” places like the Red River Valley in Manitoba.

In fact we are set to surpass Ontario, traditionally Canada’s largest bean producer, in terms of acreage and will soon have almost half of the bean acres in Canada. In 2002, according to Dennis Lange of Parent Seeds, Manitoba is on track to sow about 260,000 acres of edible beans. This is up from 90,000 acres in 1997. Our lower land costs give Manitoba a real advantage over Ontario. Parent Seeds are buyers, processors and exporters of edible beans, and sell them all over the world. Lange says that over 80% of Manitoba’s production is exported to major markets like the United States, Italy, Mexico and the United Kingdom.

The interesting thing about this spectacular success is the absence of any government involvement, apart from plant research. Farmers, in their usual way, responded to a perceived crop opportunity by figuring out new techniques for growing edible beans in Manitoba. This lack of government control, standards, or manipulation, unusual in agriculture, allowed farmers, buyers, processors and customers to determine what is the best dynamic for each sector.

“Manitoba producers have been very innovative in terms of seeding and harvesting techniques as well as variety selection,” comments Dennis Lange. He also notes that bean quality, determined by colour, size, and shape, has been crucial for sales. In a ground-breaking marketing twist, producers and processors e-mail digital photographs of individual beans to prospective buyers, who are able to make on-the-spot purchasing decisions. Another hint of the information age’s potential for rural development.

The future for edible beans looks bright, even though Lange notes that we are probably at the upper end of bean acreage without more short-season varieties. Lange commends Agriculture Canada’s excellent work in bean breeding. If new varieties come on stream, lots of good land just waits to be planted to edible beans.

Agricultural research pays back about eight dollars for every dollar spent, a very sensible use of taxpayers’ money. It’s truly unfortunate that the federal government squanders money on wasteful programs yet starves those government agencies that truly provide a public service. Go figure.

The edible bean industry proves the capacity of farmers and rural communities to adapt to new world realities. Government’s best assistance, the scientific development of new bean varieties, would result in even more bean acres in Manitoba. Just give our rural communities a chance, stand back and watch them grow.