Cornell leads $3M project to grow organic dry bean industry

For farmers, dry beans aren’t only good for the heart; they’re also good for business.

Since the height of the COVID-19 global pandemic, annual sales of dry beans have skyrocketed as consumers turn to more nutritious, shelf-stable and sustainable protein alternatives. Around major urban centers in the Northeast and other high-value niche markets, consumers are clamoring for more specialty, heirloom and organic dry bean varieties. But organic farmers in New York, Vermont, Maine and Wisconsin haven’t been able to capitalize on these opportunities.

“Growing dry beans can have huge benefits for organic agriculture in these regions,” said Sarah Pethybridge, associate professor of plant pathology and plant-microbe biology at Cornell AgriTech. “But farmers there can’t meet demand because they don’t yet have tools to achieve reliable yields and quality in an organic production system.”

To close that gap, Pethybridge is leading a new four-year, $3 million multidisciplinary research project to increase the sustainability of the organic dry bean industry in the Northeast and upper Midwest by overcoming production challenges while developing improved management practices that build soil health and resilience to climate change. It is funded by the National Institute of Food and Agriculture’s Organic Agriculture Research and Extension Initiative, and includes researchers at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the universities of Vermont, Maine and Wisconsin.

From its beginnings, the project has been guided by the needs of organic growers in those states. When surveyed by Pethybridge and colleagues two years ago, 72% of growers said they wanted to increase their production of dry beans but lacked proven strategies to effectively manage diseases and abiotic stresses. This is especially difficult when growing dry beans organically because farmers rely heavily on soil tillage – turning over the soil mechanically – to manage weeds and diseases.

Another challenge is the two-step harvesting process: Farmers mechanically pull plants and rake them into windrows to dry, returning later to combine them. But prospective dry bean growers may not be able to invest in the specialized equipment needed or cover the higher labor and fuel costs. Therefore, Pethybridge’s research team is focusing on bean varieties that can be directly harvested. Direct harvest lowers barriers to entry while allowing farmers to increase their use of cover crops and reduce tillage.

“Dry beans are fairly lucrative and could help farmers in terms of economic sustainability,” said Matt Ryan, project co-principal investigator and associate professor of soil and crop sciences in CALS’ School of Integrative Plant Science (SIPS). “In terms of environmental sustainability, reducing tillage combats soil erosion and nutrient runoff, which builds resilience to climate change – especially both extreme rainfall events and short-term drought conditions.”

To optimize these trade-offs, Pethybridge’s project encompasses a holistic scope and includes agronomists, plant pathologists, weed scientists and extension specialists. At Cornell, Ryan and Virginia Moore, a cover crop specialist and assistant professor in SIPS’ Plant Breeding and Genetics Section, are refining a rotational, cover crop-based organic no-till system: Tillage is used for establishing cover crops, but then dry beans are planted directly into mulch made by “crimping” and killing the cover crop in the field.

Ryan also is testing a custom-built inter-row mower and increased seeding rates for weed management, while Miguel Gómez, co-PI and the Robert G. Tobin Food Marketing Professor in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, is modeling supply chain performance based on the improved production practices being developed.

In the final years of the project, Pethybridge’s team will launch an extension program to spread results through on-farm trials and demonstrations, as well as webinars, YouTube videos, fact sheets, short courses and an organic no-till dry bean production manual. The idea, Pethybridge said, is to meet farmers wherever they prefer to learn new information. For Peter Martens, whose family has been growing dry beans organically in Penn Yan, New York since 1997, new information could breathe new life into regional market opportunities and organic farming.

“I try to experiment every year but so far keep coming back to my standard practices and market classes,” Martens said. “If small-seeded edibles like black, navy and small red beans could be grown in an organic crimped rye [cover crop] no-till system, it would greatly reduce production costs.”

Sarah Thompson is a writer for Cornell AgriTech.

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