Dry beans can be a fun & beautiful addition to the garden. If you have space, it is easy to produce homestead quantities of beans to feed your family. On a small farm scale beans can provide a profitable addition to the farmer’s market display. Conveniently, seed saving is the same as crop harvest for dry beans, which makes them a crop you only have to buy seed for once (unless you accidentally eat them all).
Here at Adaptive Seeds, we love to grow beans almost as much as we like to eat them (which is a lot). Producing them is a bit of a process but it’s pretty fun & you’re rewarded with piles of delicious, nutritious jewels at the end so it’s totally worth it.
As market growers, we were attracted to dry bean production because we saw a need for local staple food production – for food security as much as to fill a market niche – & soon discovered we could sell all of the beans we could produce. We also really like having dry beans fill a spot in our field rotations. In the past we have planted as many as 6 acres in dry beans, but it didn’t take us long to figure out that if we planted less acreage but took better care of it, we could have much higher yields & fewer headaches. Since we’ve shifted our focus to seed production, we have reduced our dry bean crop size further & now grow about ½ acre of beans per year, still selling some as food. Following is an assortment of tips & tricks for dry bean production, & details of our bean enterprise budget from 2014.
In our area (The Willamette Valley of Oregon), dry beans can be planted until the beginning of June, which means you still have some time to get a crop in the ground this season. Our goal is to sow our dry beans by mid-May, but we have successfully harvested earlier varieties (such as Early Warwick) from sowing as late as June 10.
Dry beans are sensitive to frost & need warm soil to germinate, so sowing earlier isn’t necessarily worth it. The real trick is getting the crop harvested before the rains come in September – for this reason, we choose varieties with shorter days-to-maturity. Some dry beans take as many as 110 days to mature, but the varieties we offer at Adaptive Seeds all mature in 95 days or less. This is true for both bush & pole types. For farm scale food production we prefer bush types, but pole types can be higher yielding in a smaller space. The information that follows is for bush types only.
We have experimented with several regimes for fertility, plant spacing, & irrigation, & have concluded that the best way for us to grow bush dry beans is to grow them the same way we grow bush snap beans. Our dry beans get the same amount of fertility as our vegetable crops (we use 75# of 4-4-4 per 200′ bed). Our farm bed tops are 44” wide, and we sow 3 rows per bed spaced 1′ apart. We direct seed our dry beans with an Earthway® seeder, & don’t bother to thin them. The beans get about 1” of irrigation from overhead sprinklers per week, until August 1 when we cut off water to encourage the beans to dry down, with our goal to begin harvest by September 1. We used to inoculate our beans before planting but have stopped – it seems the bacteria exist in our soil at this point & it’s a bit of a hassle. If you’re new to growing beans &/or don’t use organic methods, we recommend inoculating beans before planting. We usually weed the beans three times during the season.
Beans are ready to harvest when pods are dry but not split open & most of the leaves are yellow &/or dropping. It can be tricky to get the timing right because with most heirloom varieties not all pods ripen at the same time. It is usually better to harvest when most of the beans are ready than to wait for the last pods to dry down – if you wait this long you’ll likely lose more beans to shattering (when the pods open & beans fall out), than you will gain by waiting for those stragglers.
At harvest time we simply pull plants out by hand. This is a good task to do in the morning, as there will be some moisture on the plants & the pods are less prone to shattering than when harvested in the afternoon. We then shake / wipe the dirt off the roots (this is VERY important, as any dirt clods that make it onto your tarp will have to be picked out later), & toss whole plants onto smaller tarps (8′ x 10′) that we drag along behind us on the beds.
At the end of this process, we drag the tarps off the beds onto a much larger tarp or old shade cloth that’s on a farm road, & spread them out in the sun to dry for 2 – 3 days. We use tarps that are at least 20′ x 60′, but bigger is even better (depending on the size of your crop) – if you don’t have a tarp that large you can patchwork a few smaller ones together. Old shade cloth is much better than tarps for this purpose, because it is “self-healing” if stabbed by a pitchfork – & – perhaps more importantly – it’s porous, so if it rains or there is heavy dew, the water doesn’t pool under the beans.
Threshing is next, & it’s where the fun begins. After the plants have dried down, & hopefully on a hot, dry afternoon, we drive on the beans to thresh them. Our farm truck is a 1992 Ford F150, but we’ve also used a Toyota pickup & seen videos of folks using tractors. The key to this step is to start on the outside of the pile with the driver’s side of the truck, & go back & forth slowly making your way across the pile until it’s all flat. I usually go side to side two times, then get out, stir / flip the beans with a pitchfork, & do it again. Two times through the process is usually enough. Of course if you’re doing a smaller quantity (or even a larger one & you’re up for it), you can thresh the old-fashioned way: by dancing. For medium-sized quantities, we throw some varieties through a modified wood chipper.
Once threshing is complete, it’s time to scalp the beans by raking plants into piles, picking the piles up with a pitchfork, & tossing the larger plant debris onto another tarp to haul to the compost pile (or you can just toss it aside). It’s good to give the pitchfork a good shake &/or toss the pile into the air & catch it again, to make sure all of the beans have fallen out. This is my favorite part. A slight breeze is helpful to this process – you’ll quickly learn which direction to work in if the wind is blowing. This can be a dusty job so you might want to wear a bandana or dust mask.
At the end of scalping, there will be smaller debris & lots of beans on the tarp. At this point you can do a quick field winnow using the breeze (with or without a screen) to remove the larger debris, or just gather the beans into your totes to take in & winnow later. The more you minimize plant material at this point the better – it may take a while to get around to the next step (you are a Farmer in September, after all) & you could save a few buckets worth of volume with a quick field winnow.
Winnow & Clean
The next step is to winnow. We use a box fan on its highest setting for beans, pouring the dirty beans in front of the fan so the rest of the plant material blows away. We recommend using a screen at this point to get out the large dirt clods & larger plant pieces, too. Most of the time each bean variety gets winnowed 2 to 3 times.
At the end of this process the beans are mostly clean. The only thing left to do is to pick out the dirt clods that are the same size as the beans. We do this step using an Anderson nursery flat as a tray, so the smaller pieces of dirt & tiny beans will screen out. This is where you will be happy that you removed the dirt from the plants at harvest.
The beans are now ready to store or sell. We store our cleaned beans in 4 gallon buckets & bag them up as needed for market. The great thing about growing beans for market is their shelf-life, as beans will last for years (though we recommend selling for food within 1 year of harvest). This, along with the financial numbers (below) makes them a good addition not only to autumn markets, but potentially winter & spring markets as well – if you can produce enough!
The following chart shows our direct costs for labor & inputs for about ½ acre of dry bean production in 2014. This is equivalent to 24 x 200′ beds (14,400 row feet). Eight varieties were sown – with variable germination. If all one variety, labor costs would be lower & with better germination yields could have been several hundred pounds higher.
In sum, we produced about 940 lbs of beans. In our market (Eugene, Oregon), these beans (all heirloom varieties & certified organic) would sell for $7/lb as food, but we have seen dry beans fetch up to $12/lb in Portland. After all labor (122 hours of bean-experienced labor @$15 per hr) & direct expenses (fertility, seed cost) were taken into account, the $7/lb price would result in a net profit of $3,891.75. This number does not include overhead & marketing expenses, but even then, it is a respectable bottom line – if you have extra space, dry beans are well worth the time!
Adaptive Seeds 2014 Dry Bean Production Detail
|5/14||Field Prep||4 hrs||$260||@$15/hr human + $50/hr tractor|
|5/15||Fertility||$360||4-4-4, 1800 lbs|
|5/15||Seed||$210||30 lbs @ $7/lb food rate – cost would be higher with purchased seed.|
|5/15||Sowing||4 hrs||$60||@ $15/hr. 10 minutes/bed with Earthway, includes mapping & marking varieties.|
|6/3||Weeding – tractor||1 hr||$65||@$15/hr human + $50/hr tractor. Using tine weeder.|
|6/18||Weeding – hoe||16 hrs||$240||@ $15/hr. Using wheel hoe & 8” stirrup hoe.|
|7/15||Weeding – hoe||10||$150||@ $15/hr. Using wheel hoe & 8” stirrup hoe.|
|6/1 – 7/31||Irrigation||5||$100||8 times running irrigation in June & July. Includes $25 for electricity for pump, 1 hr to set line, 4 hrs turning pump on & off @$15/hr.|
|9/1 – 9/19 (1 – 2 varieties per session, 6 sessions)||Harvest & tarp||21.75||$326.25||@ 15/hr, avg 2.6 hrs / variety. Includes hand pulling plants, removing dirt clods from roots, & spreading plants on large tarp or shade cloth to dry for 2+ days.|
|9/3 – 9/22||Thresh||9.5||$142.50||@ 15/hr, avg 1.2 hrs/ variety. Includes driving on tarp of beans with pickup truck, stirring pile, driving again, removing large plant debris, & collecting beans into totes.|
|9/4 – 9/23||Winnow||7.5||$112.50||@$15/hr, avg .9 hr/ variety. Includes pouring threshed & scalped beans in front of fan two times/ variety.|
|9/5 – 10/2||Clean – seed cleaner||16||$240||@$15/hr, avg 1 hr/ variety with 2 people operating machine. Using Hance fanning mill type seed cleaner. Anderson type nursery flats can be used to screen most types of beans instead of seed cleaner & might be faster.|
|9/10 – 10/4||Clean – hand sort||30||$450||@$15/hr, Avg .75 hr/25 lb bucket. Includes picking out bean-sized dirt clods & split beans.|
Labor Expense Total
From sowing through hand-sort
Total labor cost for production.
|Input Expense Total||$845||From above – fertility, field prep, seed cost, tractor & irrigation. Note: costs do not include overhead & marketing expenses, & assumes tarps, fan, totes & pitchfork are on hand.|
Expense Grand Total
Total production costs.
Adaptive Seeds 2014 Dry Bean Production Summary
|Total Yield||944 lbs||$6608||@$7/lb market rate (we’ve seen dry beans as much as $12/lb in other markets). Up to .3 lbs/ bed foot with good germination, as low as .19 lbs/ bed foot with low germination.|
|Expense Totals||-$2716.25||From above –includes labor & inputs: fertility, field prep, seed cost, tractor & irrigation. Note: costs do not include overhead & marketing expenses, & assumes tarps, fan, totes & pitchfork are on hand.|
Note: costs for overhead & marketing are not included.
Beans are sensitive to frost & to extreme heat – they’ll set fewer & smaller beans at 90˚F & abort at temperatures above 95˚F so they are not a good crop choice in areas with very hot summers. They are also sensitive to disease in humid areas, & in some places pests such as the Mexican Bean Beetle can be a serious issue (not here, though!).
Our soil is fairly heavy & retains moisture well. Sandier soils will probably need more irrigation BUT may not cling to roots at harvest for quicker harvest & processing times.
Dry beans need to be able to dry down in August & September. If it’s dependably rainy where you live, this is not the crop for you.
Beans must be dried to less than 15% moisture before storage or else they will mold. If harvested when mature & cleaned in a dry period, no extra drying is necessary, but sometimes we run beans through a dehydrator set to 90˚F for 24 hrs before storing.