In the early days of the pandemic, when uncertainty about the future was palpable, many Americans instinctively prepared for the worst by stockpiling one food in particular: beans. It makes sense—whether dried or canned, black, pinto, or kidney, beans are affordable, healthy, and last almost indefinitely without refrigeration. And they are just as well-suited for a moment of climate crisis as they are to a global public health emergency.
They are also an excellent source of protein, and on average, a serving results in about one-tenth of the greenhouse gas emissions compared to a serving of beef. The legumes use water efficiently and leave nitrogen in the soil for the next crop, reducing the need for synthetic fertilizer. The United Nations even declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, calling pulses (a category that includes beans, peas, and lentils) the “food of the future.”
Cult-favorite heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo was already seeing a major uptick in demand in the winter of 2019, thanks to the Instant Pot craze and the popular cookbook Cool Beans, said founder Steve Sando. Then, when the pandemic hit, Sando said the company had six-week wait times for orders and ultimately doubled its sales in 2020.
Now, a year and a half later, beans are still in demand, but American farmers are not lining up to plant them. In 2021, farmers harvested 300,000 fewer acres of beans compared to 2020.
The change is partially attributable to market forces and to increasing extreme weather related to climate change, factors that are also intertwined. And while some say changes in planting and yields are normal and part of the drop is due to overplanting in previous years, others in the industry are worried about the future of beans and whether they’ll be able to continue to source an adequate supply to keep American pantries stocked. Historically, the U.S. has imported a very small volume of beans, with significant production here for domestic supply and exports.
“It’s a little bit troubling in the long term to see where this shakes out,” said Mark Kirsten, who is the president of the trade group California Bean Shippers Association and runs a wholesale bean business in Lodi, California, that has been in his family for decades.
On the flipside, Tony Roelofs, vice president of the pulse division at Oregon-based Columbia Grain International, is confident that the steady rise in legume consumption over the last 20 to 25 years will push production in the right direction. If he’s right, it could move the food system toward a more climate-friendly future. “As we continue to grow our population on a worldwide level and water supply and arable land demand continue to be problematic . . . pulse crops have a great spot,” he said. “It’s cheaper protein and it’s more environmentally friendly protein.”
The Commodity Crop Effect
Since the 1970s, per capita consumption of legumes has more than tripled in the U.S. overall, with Americans steadily eating more black beans and black-eyed peas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Production, however, hasn’t followed a linear upward trend. Between the 2012 and 2017 there was a slight uptick in acres planted, but after a peak in 2017 and 2018, production fell drastically in 2019, shot back up in 2020, and dropped again in 2021. (These statistics don’t include chickpeas or lentils, which have seen more significant growth in acres planted over the past decade but also dipped down in recent years.)
Depending on the variety, beans are grown in many different states across the country. In a given year, Camellia, a fourth-generation bean company based in New Orleans, might get its limas from growers on the West Coast, black-eyed peas from the South, red kidneys from the middle of the country, and pintos from the Dakotas, said Vince Hayward, CEO of Camellia.
“Every year it’s a comparison between corn prices, wheat prices, or soybean prices, and farmers make an educated decision on what they need to grow to support their farms and their families.”
Hayward and every other industry source contacted for this article said that a major increase in prices for commodity crops was the biggest factor affecting supply. When those prices rise, farmers make less space to plant dry beans (other than soybeans, the majority of which are not eaten by people). “Every year it’s a comparison between corn prices, wheat prices, or soybean prices, and farmers make an educated decision on what they need to grow to support their farms and their families,” Hayward explained. This year, the price differential was more extreme.
In the northern Plains states, high prices for corn and soy, along with other market forces that favor those commodities, have also led to farmers plowing up grassland to plant those crops. In September, the USDA projected 2021 average prices for corn and soybeans—$5.45 and $12.90 per bushel, respectively—to be the third-highest since 1960. Depending on a few factors, black beans might command three times as much per bushel compared to corn, but corn yields are so high, farmers could make double or more per acre.
“That just makes it very tough for specialty crops,” said Tom Harmon, general manager of Jack’s Bean Company, a Holyoke, Colorado-based company that aggregates red kidney and pinto beans from about 30 growers annually in Colorado, Nebraska, and Kansas. “We have to [offer] a pretty high price to be able to compete . . . when [farmers] can grow a conventional crop that’s much easier.”
At Rancho Gordo, Sando was frustrated by this push and pull of the commodity system, in which yields per acre dominate the conversation, so he has mostly worked outside of it, creating direct long-term relationships with farmers who grow for Rancho Gordo every year. But as he attempts to meet increasing demand, it can still be difficult to convince new farmers to plant heirloom varieties since the yields can be even lower than they are for conventional beans.