A Boom for Bean Farmers: Pandemic Spurs Demand for Legumes

U.S. News & World Report

GRANGEVILLE, Idaho (AP) — Toilet paper isn’t the only thing being whisked off the grocery store shelves these days.

Ever since the coronavirus pandemic settled in, agriculture producers have experienced a bean boom as consumers stock up on dry beans, peas, lentils and chickpeas.

Jeff VanPevenage, president and CEO of Columbia Grain International at Portland, told The Lewiston Tribune his company has seen a 40% increase in demand for these products over the past couple of months, and processing plants are working around the clock to fulfill an ever-increasing number of orders.

“As the news started coming out, dry beans and shelf-stable foods were right in there with toilet paper,” VanPevenage said. “If you started going to the grocery stores in early February, you started to see toilet paper was gone, but dry beans and lentils were wiped out, and it continues to be wiped out.”

VanPevenage said he took a personal tour of seven grocery stores in the Portland area about a month ago and the empty shelves of legumes confirmed his suspicions.

“That’s not just something the general public shops for,” in bulk, he said.

At the same time, demand for legumes began escalating around the world. Buyers began to call American producers, wanting to buy more product and “wanting it shipped immediately,” VanPevenage said.

Transportation, however, has been a problem in some parts of the world, delaying how quickly the products can be shipped.

“I think what has happened, prices have been relatively cheap the last two or three years and buyers have become accustomed to buying what they want with immediate shipment,” VanPevenage said.

“When everybody in the world all of a sudden needed to restock, capacity (to resupply) was gone, just like that. The Canadians have had worse transportation problems than the U.S. and then (shipping) containers got tied up in China when they were shut down. So, with the lack of container availability to move this product, people could ship in June or July, but not now.”

The shipping capacity in the Pacific Northwest, however, appears to be fine for the time being. There have been enough containers to bring from Seattle and Tacoma to load at Lewiston and return to the coast, VanPevenage added.

“It hasn’t been perfect, but OK for the most part,” he said. “Unlike Canada (that is) 40% in need of containers.”

The bean boom has brought about a nice increase in prices for farmers in the region. VanPevenage said prices are up about 10% to 15% for pulses from a year ago.

As of Friday, April 17, the Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative listed cash bids for garbanzo beans at $18 a hundred weight; $15 for small brown lentils and $12 for whole green peas.

And although many farmers have nearly finished spring seeding, VanPevenage said growers were aware a few weeks ago of the rising demand for legumes and had time to adjust their plans to grow more acres, if they so choose.

“The Palouse is used to seeding a lot of chickpeas but the whole world decided to seed chickpeas (recently), so prices have been lower,” VanPevenage said. “So we’re seeing some switch from chickpeas toward peas and lentils this year.”

Other agriculture products that have been affected by the coronavirus outbreak include:

Northwest Farm Credit Services recently released a snapshot of the effect of the pandemic on other agriculture commodities. The 12-month outlook for cattle suggests variable profitability with strong domestic demand. Dairy products are not as likely to be profitable, according to the study. Much of the profitability will depend on producers ability to keep up with demand.

The outlook for the nursery and greenhouse industry remains positive for 2020 with growers reporting strong orders and an early start to the spring shipping season.

Wheat growers are looking at break-even returns with the season’s average farm price on all varieties of wheat at $4.55 per bushel, down 61 cents from last year.

Apples, cherries and pears are expected to have slightly profitable returns for growers. Improving export markets are positive for the industry, but domestic demand is sluggish.

The 12-month outlook anticipates slight profits for wineries and vineyards. With overproduction in two of the largest wine-producing areas in the Northwest, grape prices are falling and sales by volume are declining as consumers cut back on alcohol consumption, according to the study.

Twenty-one groups representing agriculture and food businesses recently sent a letter to congressional leaders demanding better support for independent farmers who have been impacted by COVID-19. The letter specifically addresses these businesses’ eligibility for the Small Business Administration’s Economic Injury Disaster Loan program. Among the signatories was the Idaho Organization of Resource Councils.

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